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Pilot season and U.S. networks spin the same old stories

Actress Tina Fey from the TV series "30 Rock" arrives at the 18th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, California January 29, 2012


This is definitely coming to NBC: Tooken. "About a woman (Ellie Kemper) who escapes from a doomsday cult and starts life over in New York." The writer/executive producer is Tina Fey.

This might be coming to NBC: One Big Happy. "About a lesbian (Elisha Cuthbert) who gets pregnant just as her straight male best friend (Nick Zano) meets and marries the love of his life (Kelly Brook)." The writer/executive producer is Liz Feldman (2 Broke Girls).

It's that time of the year. Pilot season, when new network pilots are ordered up and made, is drawing to a close. This is pilot panic season – when the U.S. networks look at available content, assess, and decide what to put on the air. Now it's just weeks until the Upfronts, when the networks present their wares to advertisers and hope for big commitments in ad dollars. There's trepidation galore.

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Although the impact of U.S. network TV is diminishing, advertisers still spend about $70-billion on getting attention to their products. According to Variety, 2012 Internet ad spending came to approximately $36.6-billion. There's still money to be made in the TV racket.

Things are a bit different this year. Fox, in particular, has attempted to shift the paradigm. No longer is it making a ton of pilots, at considerable expense, and then wishing and hoping for a hit from a bunch of shows thrown on the air. It is committing to a handful if series – 6, 10, 13 or 22 episodes of full seasons – based on the track record of the talent involved. CBS isn't shifting the rules of the game. It just doesn't need many new series. And what is does commit to will amount to the very tried-and-true – another CSI spinoff, a possible comedy called How I Met Your Dad, which amounts to How I Met Your Mother, but from a female point of view. They are wizards of invention, the CBS bosses.

In part, this is about saving money. But in the main it is about those ad dollars – with more shows, channels and platforms to choose from, advertisers are getting fastidious about where their dollars go. They want safe bets. That's why Tina Fey's production is a go, and the one with Elisha Cuthbert as a lesbian is a maybe.

These are the series we know are coming to Fox. Backstrom. Based on the books by Swedish criminologist/novelist Leif G.W. Persson, this features Rainn Wilson playing "an overweight, offensive, irascible detective as he tries and fails to change his self-destructive behaviour." The executive producer is Canadian Hart Hanson, who has been running Bones for years. The pilot was originally made for CBS, which passed on it last year. It has recently been remade in Vancouver. Also, Gotham, about a young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), Joker and Catwoman. It is the Batman-origins story, for want of a better description. Fox seems committed to a full 22-episode season for the show.

Definitely coming to CBS is this – Battle Creek, about "two detectives with very different world views who are teamed up. Together, they must answer the question: Is cynicism, guile and deception enough to clean up the semi-mean streets of Battle Creek, Michigan?" And why is this definitely coming to CBS? Why, it is the work of Vince Gilligan who created Breaking Bad and it's based on a script he submitted in 2002 but was rejected at the time. Canadian David Shore, who created and ran House, is in charge of it now.

Definitely coming to ABC is Astronaut Wives Club. It purports to be "the real story of the women who stood beside some of the biggest heroes in American history during the height of the space race." It's based on the book by Lily Koppel. Also from ABC and certain to air is Secrets & Lies, a remake of an Australian drama about "a patriarch (Ryan Phillippe) who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a young boy when he finds the body." It also stars Juliette Lewis.

What to make of all of this? Well, for all the shifts in the U.S. network TV racket and for all the bold declarations about new ways of doing things, the same stories are being told. Impossibly weird detectives, mismatched cops, some rich dude under suspicion and some nostalgia for happier days. Things change, and then they don't. Which is why a lot of people would like to see that Elisha Cuthbert comedy arrive on NBC.

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Follow me on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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