Are Blue Skies Coming to Network TV?

When it comes to feeling the full impact of the recession, nobody is feeling it like the TV business, which has lost millions of dollars in ad revenue. CBC has announced it is cutting back on the number of episodes it will order this year on shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. NBC has given up on the 10 p.m. drama business and is set to run a Jay Leno variety hour every week night at 10 p.m., a move estimated to save the network up to $10 million a week in programming costs.
Beyond the cost cutting moves, there seems to be a sea change in storytelling. I write about it in today’s Entertainment section of The Toronto Star in the article “Cutbacks altering what’s on the box”; you can read the full article here.
You can see tough times sneaking into storylines on shows like 30 Rock, The Office and Law & Order. I canvassed several Canadian TV screenwriters to get their take on this this trend, including a few who blog regularly on the TV biz scene. Denis McGrath and Jim Henshaw offered their usual keen eyed insider take, as did Andrew Wreggitt, writer and creator of a series Global has in development for next season called The Dealership.
Wreggitt’s series deals with a family run luxury car dealership struggling through hard times. Talk about ripped from the headlines! The kicker is that the pilot (and hopefully the series) was shot in an abandoned car dealership at the foot of downtown Toronto.
He doesn’t think the tough times storyline will scare off viewers. “It’s really giving the audience permission to laugh at the situation,” says Wreggitt, who was in on discussions with U.S. networks about partnering up on the project. “What they’re looking for is something that’s got an uplifting feel to it that deals with what people are really going through in their lives.”
Of course, it’s not just scripted shows getting a tough times makeover. Reality shows–cheaper to produce, killing two birds with one stone for broadcasters–are also moving from dark and nasty to light and positive. ABC is hoping to strike lightening twice with the return of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The Regis Philbin game show, which put ABC briefly on top a decade ago, is coming back on in August as a week-long miniseries. Jay Leno—NBC`s solution to its own economic woes with his cheaper to producer, five-nights a week primetime variety hour—is hitting the road this summer, health permitting, with his feel-good “Comedy Stimulus Tour.” The world wide web success of Britain’s Got Talent sensation Susan Boyle will surely spur similar uplifting fare in North America. Perhaps most telling of all, it’s suddenly hot to tighten belts on Paris Hilton’s My New BBF, where the setting has shifted from an opulent mansion to more reasonable digs.
From the Star story, here are five “hard times” scripted pilots hoping to land on network schedules this fall (the U.S. nets will announce their pickups May 5-21):

Canned (ABC): “They’re young, they’re moving up … and they’ve all just been canned. Five friends are about to find out what happens when their upwardly mobile lives turn upside down.”
The Dealership (Global): A retired used car dealer (William Devane) comes out of retirement to try and help his two children jump start the family business during hard times in the auto industry.
Untitled Kelsey Grammer Project (ABC): “Wall Street legend Hank Pryor (Grammer) and his wife Tilly have been living the high life in New York City. That is until Hank is forced out of his CEO job and has to move his family back to the small town of River Bend.”
Untitled Debra Messing Project (NBC): The former Will & Grace star is back as “a laid off CEO who is ill-prepared to be a full-time wife and mother as her husband is to provide for the family.”
This Little Piggy (ABC): “You can go home again, but what happens when three grown siblings all try to go home at once?”

Leave a Reply