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Many are called for, but few TV pilots are chosen

The Associated Press, Thursday, April 22, 2010, 3:28am (PDT)

NEWTON, Mass. (AP) -- Turreted and stately, the house on a quiet street in Newton had been vacant for a while.

But for a few days last month, its "For Sale" signs went away. Trucks, trailers, crews and actors converged along Lake Avenue after fliers in every neighbor's mailbox gave fair warning: This picture-perfect homestead would temporarily be occupied as one of several shooting sites around the Boston area for a CBS pilot called "Quinn-Tuplets."

This wannabe series features Amber Tamblyn, Kenneth Mitchell, Sam Witwer, David Giuntoli and Anna Chlumsky as all-grown-up quintuplets named Quinn.

But further details weren't available, or worth a viewer getting too excited about, yet. "Quinn-Tuplets" may never make it to the air.

"Quinn-Tuplets" is just one of 80-plus scripted pilots in production and due to be evaluated soon by the five broadcast networks. Each is bucking for a berth on a fall prime-time schedule. But only a handful will make the cut.

That means if "Quinn-Tuplets" doesn't pass muster with CBS execs, it will be tossed, forever unseen by the public, on the lofty scrapheap of busted TV pilots.

Such is the game of win or lose played out each pilot season in a high-stakes, time-crunched scramble.

Lately, a year-round program rollout has found favor in the industry. Even so, the May "upfront" presentations — heralding a new crop of fall TV to advertisers and the world — remain. This half-century-old rite perpetuates the need for pilots to sustain it. Lots of pilots. Pronto.

Shawn Ryan, with series to his credit including "The Unit" and "The Shield," has a pilot in the works for Fox called "Ride-Along."

"When you're producing an ongoing show," he said one hectic day last week, "it feels like you're in an out-of-control car hurtling 100 miles per hour and you never know whether you'll get someplace, or crash. With a pilot, you start at a standstill, and you're told you've got to be at 100 miles per hour — tomorrow!"

Almost in lockstep, the process goes like this: Come January, scripts for dramas and comedies are picked by the studios from hundreds in development. Production begins. By the end of April, each finished pilot is delivered to the network that ordered it. Then, in mid-May, the networks unveil their fall lineups, with a lucky few new shows part of the mix — all whipped together in the frantic fortnight that went before.

"The advantage is, it's a system that everybody's used to," said David Stapf, president of CBS Television Studios. "The disadvantage: We're all going after the same directors, the same actors, at the same time. That makes it difficult."

Stapf has a dozen pilots under way for the sister CBS network (besides "Quinn-Tuplets," they include a revived "Hawaii Five-O" and "Reagan's Law," a cop drama starring Tom Selleck), plus two for the CW. These came from scores of scripts and series pitches he'd been shepherding since last summer.

But for Cindy Chupack, the script development phase of her NBC project, "Love Bites," took place two years ago. Then NBC opted not to go the next step to a pilot. Much to her surprise early this year, Chupack learned "Love Bites" had sprung back to life: The network's current bosses wanted a pilot. Under the aegis of NBC's Universal Media Studios, she started hiring a crew and casting roles.

Chupack (whose credits as a writer-producer include "Sex and the City") conceived "Love Bites" as an hourlong romantic comedy anthology with loosely connected tales of love, marriage and dating. Besides a slate of guest stars, she signed Becki Newton ("Ugly Betty") and Jordana Spiro ("My Boys") as the series' regular cast members.

"We're going from words on paper that only a few executives saw and decided not to make before, to now," said Chupack in a recent interview from Los Angeles, sounding jazzed as she faced the 14th and final shooting day. "It's really nice to employ a lot of people and have them making this thing that's been on paper for a long time."

On the other hand, "Love Bites" will be fighting for a place at the table against established series NBC may stick with, plus a dozen-and-a-half other pilots. These include the high-profile "Rockford Files" remake and a legal drama starring Jimmy Smits, whose executive producer is NBC's excommunicated talk-show host, Conan O'Brien.

The multilevel strategies that shape a network schedule make an episode of "Lost" seem one-dimensional. Audience flow, counter-programming and weak spots in the lineup that need fixing all enter into the calculus. No wonder locking the schedule goes down to the wire.

"I'm kind of Zen about it," said Chupack when asked about her nail-biting plans when she is waiting for the verdict. "There are so many factors I have no control over."

She expects to hear the news — good or bad — as late as Sunday, May 16. If her show's among the chosen few, she'll jump on a plane to be in New York at NBC's presentation for ad-buyers Monday morning.

Shawn Ryan isn't counting on a phone call any earlier from Fox about the fate of "Ride-Along." Fox will unveil its lineup that Monday afternoon.

"Ride-Along" is a Chicago-based police drama starring Jennifer Beals ("The L Word") and Jason Clarke ("Brotherhood").

"But I wanted to investigate a city more than just tell another cop story," Ryan said.

As he spoke, he was halfway through a 14-day location shoot that wasn't set to wrap until this Sunday. The first edit of the pilot was due for delivery to Fox a week later, with fine-tuning to follow.

"There's absolutely no rest until the May upfronts," Ryan said. "And then the reward, should you succeed, is to be told, 'OK, you're going to be filming the series in two months. Go to it!'"

Then, a few months after that, comes the biggest hurdle yet for the new shows that have made it to the air: Will anybody watch?

———

EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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