Let’s see what develops

It’s development time in the network television world. That’s when we look at all the shows that are contenders for the fall schedule. Network TV is still the biggest dog in the media pack, and people are watching more TV than ever. To that end, there are many more choices.

So, how are they selected? Let me take you through the process at CBS (and it’s essentially the same for all the big networks).

We have very talented programmers and development executives whose jobs are to work with writers, creators, and producers to look for material that would work on our network. Past successes can breed new ones (the CSI franchise, for example), or a hot producer or writer with a track record can present a new idea that fits. What is “fit?” It’s a balance of what we need, such as a 10 p.m. drama or an 8 p.m. comedy, and also what would work with our broad audience target.

Last year, our programmers developed a show called “The Mentalist,” whose lead actor, the appealing Simon Baker, was on the verge of major stardom. It came from Bruno Heller, the writer/executive producer of the HBO series “Rome.” It was scheduled last fall against Fox’s quirky show, “Fringe,” which also has a great pedigree from “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams. “The Mentalist’s” audience target was right down the middle; it had great mainstream appeal to men and women of all ages. It was interesting, engaging, and clever. It became the industry’s only bona fide hit of this season, and the No. 1 new show on all of network television!

Think of the TV development process like a giant funnel. Lots of ideas pour in and get discussed, and we hone down the list and buy scripts from those with the most promise. Then the very best scripts are given the go-ahead to make a pilot. That pilot gets cast, and ultimately produced, edited, and delivered to the network around this time of year.

Then we test every pilot at our state-of-the-art audience-testing facility in Las Vegas. That’s where we get the best sampling of America’s TV viewers who come pouring through Television City at the MGM Grand hotel.

I’ll do a separate posting on TV marketing research, but suffice it to say, it’s very cool. This is the place where America gets its say. The show may seem great to us, but what does America think? Caveat: research is a tool, not a rule; it’s another piece of ammo used in our arsenal of decision making.

So, after that, our programmers and senior executives look at the pilots and we discuss the shows’ strengths against our needs–how many hours we need to fill, what kind of shows work best, and what pieces fit well into the schedule puzzle. Plus, we discuss how well a show can be marketed to the viewing public, and what the competition is doing. Then we create a new fall schedule. On May 20, we will announce that schedule to the press and advertisers in a giant presentation at Carnegie Hall called the “Upfront.” Why? Because most network TV ad time is sold up front, before the season, during early summer.

Let the games begin! You may not hear from me for a couple of weeks as we sort all this out, so stay tuned. I will try my best.

(Note: In the meantime, you can follow the fall development news and the industry Upfront reports on a great blog by a guy who really gets it, TVMoJoe by TV Week’s Joe Adalian.)

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