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A peek into TV's frenzied pilot season

San Francisco lawyer Eli Stone believes he may be a prophet. But not even he can predict if he’ll be around come September.“Eli Stone,” a “Field of Dreams”-type drama about a man compelled to a higher calling after having visions, is one of 31 new shows up for consideration at ABC, the once-struggling networkExecutive producer Greg Berlanti hopes to find out this week if “Eli Stone”
/ Source: The Associated Press

San Francisco lawyer Eli Stone believes he may be a prophet. But not even he can predict if he’ll be around come September.

“Eli Stone,” a “Field of Dreams”-type drama about a man compelled to a higher calling after having visions, is one of 31 new shows up for consideration at ABC, the once-struggling network

Executive producer Greg Berlanti hopes to find out this week if “Eli Stone” and “Dirty Sexy Money,” a legal soap opera he also produced for ABC, will be on the network’s fall schedule. But the word could be dragged out until next week, even up to just hours before ABC and the other four broadcast networks unveil their new lineups to advertisers in showy presentations called “upfronts.”

Berlanti readily presumes failure. After all, it’s the likelihood in television.

At the same time, the producer hopes he’ll get “the call,” believing “Stone” will appeal to network executives who are looking to bolster their drama lineup, which has a strong following among young adult women.

“Every season there’s a void in what kind of television is being made,” Berlanti says. “The bigger trick is: Are people interested in this kind of thing right now?”

Like most series creators, Berlanti, 34, is looking for his one big “Ugly Betty” or “Grey’s Anatomy” — a show that will have America buzzing from the water cooler to the Internet.

More about the approach than the idea

Of the 112 pilots being considered this spring by the broadcast networks, only about 40 are expected to make it on the air next fall.

In addition to the usual case-of-the-week cop, doc and law procedurals, there are shows focused on women, based on movies, set in newsrooms, inspired by British series or steeped in the supernatural.

Not exactly virgin territory, but Katherine Pope, who heads NBC’s series development, says it’s often more about an unusual approach than an original idea.

“There are plenty of shows in a traditional framework,” she says, noting that medical dramas such as “House” or “Grey’s Anatomy” aren’t conceptually revolutionary but have producers with unique viewpoints. “You look to somebody who has a real vision and real characters.”

Berlanti delivered those ingredients with his 2002 adult-themed family drama “Everwood.” “There wasn’t this sort of cross-generation storytelling that there is now,” he said. “No one thought it would sell, and it sold. It got on and it worked.”

But his “Jack & Bobby” in 2004 didn’t work so well. “I thought, we’ll meld political science and teenagers. ... Then no one really watched it. Ever.”

Experiences like that have taught Berlanti that even if a show gets picked up, the pilot — which typically becomes the premiere episode — can be a producer’s one shot to win over an audience. “If it takes you more than that to get your footing ... it can be tough,” he says.

And with dramas, at least, it often has little to do with actual content.

“Most of us don’t allow shows to grow,” acknowledges Fox’s programming chief, Preston Beckman. “We can be patient with a show like, ‘’Til Death’ because it’s a sitcom (that has) stand-alone episodes and people can discover it. But when you’re going for something that’s very high concept, that’s going to require a weekly commitment, viewers are now going, ‘I’m not going to make that commitment.”’

‘Friday Night Lights’ vs. ‘According to Jim’

That explains why a critical darling like NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” is in danger of cancellation, while ABC’s lesser-regarded “According to Jim” has lasted six seasons.

“Is it the wrong network? The wrong hour? The wrong time? Or is it that it just doesn’t connect in some way?” Berlanti questions.

“It’s really a guessing game,” says analyst Brad Adgate of ad agency Horizon Media. ‘Heroes’ is the only (new series) that’s really had any traction with viewers (this season) ... So there’s no guarantee that when you bring in a new show that it’s going to do any better than the aging programming on the schedule.”

MediaWeek columnist Marc Berman agrees: “Networks don’t want to spend the money on too much new programming, because even a declining ‘ER,’ for example, is going to be stronger than something new.”

So why does Berlanti persist?

“I’m still in this business to write that zeitgeist show,” he says. “It’s sort of why I’m still shooting for that hoop.”

On a chilly Friday in the middle of this year’s pilot season, the period during which the sample episodes of the wannabe fall series are produced, Berlanti was preparing for some March madness of his own. He spent much of this whirlwind, 12-hour day shuttling from City Hall downtown, where “Stone” is being shot, to trailers several blocks away for story meetings with writers on his current series, ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters.”

Afterward, he traveled to London to film singer George Michael (the focus of Stone’s inexplicable visions), followed by a trip to San Francisco for some “Stone” location shooting. Then it was back to Los Angeles to wrap the “Stone” pilot, before heading to New York to start “Dirty Sexy Money,” which stars Peter Krause (of “Six Feet Under” fame) as an idealistic lawyer caught up in some dirty dealings.

From concept to production, Berlanti will have spent nearly 10 months on the “Stone” pilot, which he and co-writer Marc Guggenheim sold to ABC last summer.

But not every producer has that luxury.

Many have to wait until fall to pitch the concept of the series to network programmers. If the execs like what they hear, the pilot script is hustled into the network office before Christmas, with a production green light coming, it’s hoped, just after the New Year.

Then it’s a three-month scramble to hire the writers, directors, actors and the rest of the production staff for the pilot, which has to be shot and submitted in advance of the May upfronts.

With so many shows for the networks to choose from, what makes any one of them stand out?

“So much of it is casting,” says Berlanti, who tapped Jonny Lee Miller for “Stone” just after Miller’s “Smith” was axed by CBS.

“I try and cast all the leads first,” says Berlanti, who rounded out the “Stone” ensemble with, among others, Loretta Devine, Victor Garber and Natasha Henstridge. “It tells the network, the studio, and ultimately the audience, the tone of the show.”

So what happens to “Eli Stone” if it doesn’t make the cut?

Some producers have been taking their passed-over pilots to the Internet, hoping to create buzz — and maybe get a second chance.

“Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence put up his failed WB pilot “Nobody’s Watching” on YouTube, where it became a hit with Web fans. “Aquaman,” a pilot the CW scrapped last year, also had a brief airing on YouTube, and is now being sold through iTunes.

Internet hype hasn’t actually saved any shows. But the insatiable hunger for online video suggests the Web may hold promise for future producers looking to get a show in front of potentially millions of people without a network’s blessing.

“In all fairness to the networks, no one can really predict what will be a hit,” says Guggenheim. “It’s all about timing.

“But as I watch the whole thing come together,” he adds, “it’s hard to imagine that we’re only doing this so that I have a DVD and a bunch of people in my living room watching it, instead of millions of people.”