Awaiting L.A. Screenings With Comedic Trepidation

Just after attending MIP in Cannes, and right before donning sunglasses to disperse throughout the world for summer vacations, there is one more stop TV executives make on their yearly travel schedules: the L.A. Screenings. This year's Screenings are scheduled to take place May 18-May 26, with the indies' screenings designated for May 18-21 (at the Park Hyatt and Century Plaza hotels) and the studios' screenings wrapping things up May 21-26. As usual, the international event for the studios will give buyers from around the world a taste of what's new on the U.S. production slate.

If the 2005-2006 season taught us anything, it's that a show better be hot, hot, hot right away, or it'll be gone, gone, gone quicker than you can say "L.A." This year, some of the season's most hyped shows were cancelled after one or two episodes (i.e. Just Legal and Emily's Reasons Why Not). And while there had been fear of a handful of Lost and Desperate Housewives clones banking on those shows' ability to help renew the popularity of network television, some truly original series, like My Name Is Earl and Commander in Chief managed to stand out from the crowd. Whether or not those shows will travel very well abroad is yet to be seen, though it seems unlikely than any of this year's shows will have the global success of Lost, Housewives (whose format was just sold by Buena Vista International Television into Latin America) or Grey's Anatomy.

RTL's Frank Dietz
RTL's Frank Dietz

This year's Screenings will likely see a slight decrease in the number of shows, as a result of the CBS-Warner Bros. hybrid, the CW. The new, improved TV network will combine the best programming from the soon-to-be-defunct WB and UPN networks, making little room for new programming on that net. However, the new Fox-owned MyNetworkTV (born from the ashes of the former UPN stations that lost their affiliation with the CW merger) may make up for that loss and add more new shows to the slates.

This year, there are, as usual, some notable trends. Among the current series causing the most copycats are My Name is Earl and Commander in Chief, with a common focus both on ne'er do well men and politicians.

Continuing in the same vein as Earl are comedies that follow loser-ish men who either live at home or can't seem to get their lives together, or both. Fox's That Guy is about a man who suddenly realizes that his friends all have minivans and families and he doesn't. Half-hour comedy Fox's The Winner revolves around a 40-something guy who looks back at his 30s, when he lived with his parents. And an untitled ABC Danny Comden sitcom follows a guy who realizes that his college graduation speech was way off and that he hasn't exactly lived up to his own expectations.

While loner comedies are big this year, so are group and "buddy" comedies, revolving around a whole cluster of friends. CBS's The Class revolves around a bunch of people who've been friends since elementary school; ABC's In Case of Emergency chronicles the lives of a group of friends who came through a crisis together; ABC's Help Me Help You opens with a group therapy session and goes from there; CBS's Weekend follows a group of guys that live for their weekends; and NBC's Lipstick Jungle revolves around a social group comprised of the other half of the population - women.

And if there is one life cycle event dominating this year's pilot schedule, it's the wedding. Seems like the TV business has wedding fever this year, with shows beginning and leading up to the the big event. In chronological order, Fox comedy Worst Week of My Life traces the week leading up to a couple's wedding; ABC comedy A Day in the Life presents each participant's perspective on a young couple's wedding; Fox's Wedding Album is about a wedding photographer and his assistant; NBC's The Singles Table follows a group of people who first meet while sitting at the eponymous table at a wedding; and 52 Fights focuses on a newlywed couple's transition from dating to marriage.

The nets also seem to be molding their shows after the daytime soap - made especially for primetime. ABC's Secrets from a Small Town, Brothers & Sisters and Ugly Betty (based on the popular telenovela Betty La Fea) all fall into that category. The CW's Palm Springs carries on in the soapy drama genre in which the WB and UPN specialized.

Another trend that the nets are, quite literally, taking and running with, is the runaway drama. In ABC's Day Break a cop is on the run after being framed for murder. In ABC's The Traveler, two guys who the feds suspect as being threats to national security are on the lam. And the CW's takes the image of one lone fugitive and multiplies it, with Runaway, a drama about an entire family that hits the road once the dad is accused of murder.

While in the past lawyers and doctors have been the nets' most prized possessions, this year, it seems to be psychiatrists and politicians. ABC's Men in Trees and Fox's More, Patience both have psychiatrist protagonists.

And when it comes to the intriguing world of politics, this season's commissioned pilots have got almost every aspect covered, in both comedies and dramas. ABC's What Happens on A Bus follows a journalist on the presidential campaign trail; CBS's Sex, Power and Love follows a group of 30-something Capitol Hill staffers; CBS's Waterfront focuses on the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island; Fox's Vanished takes a more suspenseful angle, with an investigation following the disappearance of a Senator's wife; and an untitled NBC drama follows a politician who dies and gets another chance at life.

While right now it's anyone's guess as to which pilots the networks will decide to buy from the studios, by the L.A. Screenings, the schedules will be set and the international buyers will be able to see which ones they like.

In terms of trends she expects to see when it comes to programming, Marion Edwards, evp, Television Distribution at Twentieth Century Fox International Television, said, "It's interesting, what seems to be a popular are two opposite sides of the spectrum. One trend is the continuing story, like 24 or Prison Break, where you have to tell a big story with big hooks. But on the other hand, people are also looking for the stand-alone weekly shows like CSI. You're definitely seeing fewer medical and legal shows, though," she mused.

When asked how the loss of the WB and UPN networks would affect the screenings, Edwards said, "There will be fewer younger-skewing shows, and most international buyers will be grateful. That's not the kind of programming that traveled well," she said.

When asked whether the L.A. Screenings are important to her company, Edwards was adamant: "It's probably the most critical sales and business event on the calendar," she said. "It serves so many purposes. You can show all your new shows to everyone at once. People come specifically to see your new programs and spend the entire day with you. The Screenings are our chance to entertain buyers and showcase new products." She continued, "Everyone is there, even the Asia buyers who often don't come to MIP. The Screenings really start the year for us."

Doug Schwalbe, head of International at Classic Media admitted that as an indie, his company is not looking to launch any new shows at the Screenings. "The only reason I attend the screenings is to meet with Latin clients," he said. "We're going to be launching a sales initiative in Latin America, and bringing a new sales agent to Latin America. But, really Latin America is the only reason for the indies to attend - the combination of NATPE and the L.A. Screenings is important." But, he admitted that at the Screenings, "buyers are looking for the next big Bruckheimer show, not my shows."

But even when it comes to the big studio shows that buyers covet at the Screenings, most (almost entirely dramas) are reserved for pre-or post-primetime spots. "We buy American series only for the 11:30 spot," said Jan Rubes, head of Program Acquisitions at Czech Television, the public service television in the Czech Republic. Rubes explained that the only exception to that rule is Ally McBeal, which is aired at 9:30, despite admittedly low ratings. "With the studio packages, we always get one series a season, but for us, we are only programming about 10 percent of programming from outside the country, and most of that fits into the Saturday primetime block of U.S. and European movies."

Frank Dietz, head of Acquisitions and Co-Productions at Super RTL in Germany (which is co-owned by RTL and Disney), said that since his company is not interested in buying U.S. first-runs at the L.A. Screenings, "we go to get a good overview of the business, the current output and trends in content." Super RTL primarily airs cartoons during the day, with one weekly primetime block also reserved for animated shows, so, Dietz said, "For us, the L.A. Screenings are about seeing the new animated series." He continued, "At the L.A. Screenings we also, of course, get to meet with our shareholders, which is good." He stressed, "The L.A. Screenings get more and more important every year."