Foreign Series Take Root in U.S. Soil

By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

This year, the pilot process is somewhat different. It had to be, what with the time constraints imposed by the lengthy Writers Guild of America strike in the U.S.

Ken Dubow
Marion Edwards

Last year, the U.S. TV networks commissioned their typical number of pilots (ABC had 29; CBS, 21; CW, 12; Fox, 24; and NBC, 20). This year, the numbers are notably different (as of press time, ABC had 17; CBS, 14; CW, 4; Fox, 14; and NBC had already greenlit 13 shows at its early mini-upfront). While many have speculated that fewer pilots might become the norm during future pilot seasons, others believe that next year, things will go back to the way they were in a pre-strike world. The big question still unanswered is therefore: Will this unusual pilot season become usual or will this year be forever viewed as an unfortunate anomaly?
In addition to the vastly divergent pilot process, it seems that Hollywood studios are, more forcefully than ever, reworking series that have already worked for international broadcasters. In fact, shows based on foreign programming were all over the truncated 2008-2009 pilot list, showing once again that it doesn’t take a “Made in the USA” tag to guarantee small screen success.

We’ve come a long way from the 2003 season in which NBC’s Americanized version of British hit Coupling tanked quicker than anyone could say: “I told you so.” In recent years, the success of shows based on international series — such as NBC’s The Office, which borrowed whole scripts from its U.K. predecessor and ABC’s Ugly Betty, which was modeled on Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea — have been an indication to programmers that mining foreign depths is the new not-so-secret secret to primetime success.
This year, quite a few pilots were loosely or wholly adapted from shows around the globe. ABC drama Life on Mars, about a cop who wakes up 30 years in the past, is super-producer David E. Kelley’s adaptation of a BBC series. An as yet untitled ABC drama from Veronica Mars showrunner Rob Thomas tells the tale of a matriarch of a family of criminals who decides it’s time for her brood to go straight is based on a New Zealand format called Outrageous Fortune. CBS comedy Worst Week is a U.S. version of BBC series The Worst Week of My Life, which chronicled the lives of a young couple who must survive their soon-to-be in-laws, while drama The Eleventh Hour, which focuses on a government agent who protects people from scientific abuses, is also based on a British show. Another CBS drama, Mythological X, is a new take on an Israeli series, and tells the tale of a woman who is told by her psychic that she has already dated the man she is destined to marry. Fox laffer Outnumbered, about a family struggling to raise three overly intelligent and highly rambunctious kids, is also based on a U.K. format.

Keith LeGoy, executive vice president, Distribution, Sony Pictures Television International, believes that due to the fact that many U.S. broadcasters simply didn’t have the usual amount of time to cast or produce their pilots, that there will be a second wave of new series for midseason, which will probably hit in September or October. “That will provide a fresh opportunity for everyone to take a look at even more new U.S. series,” said LeGoy.

Marion Edwards, president, International Television at Twentieth Century Fox, concurred with LeGoy. “It seems like we’re having two development seasons this year,” she said. “A number of pilots were shot prior to the strike. But for a lot of the pilots [that were picked up post-strike], there’s no real time to cast and shoot them in a typical time frame. I foresee more midseason shows.”

But for now, everyone’s focused on the regular-season shows. In addition to overseas series gaining traction on U.S. soil, another big trend is taking what’s worked in the past and trying to make it work now. In February, NBC aired Knight Rider, a two-hour modern take on the original series about a talking car and the man who drives it. The backdoor pilot has already been picked up as a series, and many insiders speculated that this was what NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker meant when he told audiences at NATPE that instead of pouring the studio’s resources into 80 or so pilots, as it typically does, that it would change up the pilot process. Knight Rider, which garnered decent ratings for the peacock net, might simply have been a one-off movie-of-the-week that did well with viewers.

At NATPE, Zucker also told eager listeners that his station planned on ordering a number of series straight to air. He’s kept his promise, picking up Kath and Kim, a comedy about a divorced mother and her self-absorbed daughter, as well as dramas Crusoe, The Listener and The Philanthropist, without ever seeing a pilot for any of them. In April, NBC held a mini upfront event for advertisers in which the network revealed its a complete 52-week programming strategy — a full month before the studios’ usual upfronts.
Other blasts from the past trying to make their way into the future include ABC’s Cupid, a revamped version of a short-lived 1998 series about a man who thinks he’s been sent by Zeus to unite 100 romantically challenged couples, and an untitled reality competition series based on Disney juggernaut High School Musical in which contestants live together at a music conservatory and are eliminated one by one until one is eventually crowned America’s best performer. Based on the runaway success of its flagship show, Gossip Girl, about the lives and times of spoiled rich girls on New York’s Upper East Side, comes the CW’s newest potential hit, How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls. Based on the book of the same name by Zoey Dean, the show follows a Yale graduate who is hired by a wealthy man to be a live-in tutor and life coach for his granddaughters. And based on Daniel Defoe’s masterpiece “Robinson Crusoe” comes NBC’s Crusoe. The 13-part series from the U.K.’s Power is an ambitious update of the classic novel. “This deal is the first for nearly 40 years where a leading British producer has received an order directly from a U.S. network,” said Justin Bodle, founder and CEO of Power, in a statement.

Also in fashion this year are science fiction series. From the mind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and cult hero Joss Whedon comes Fox’s Dollhouse, a heavy-on-action series about a female spy who is stripped of her memories after completing missions. Another show on tap for Fox is Fringe, a sci-fi series about an FBI agent, an institutionalized scientist and a certified genius who team up to identify paranormal activity, and The Oaks, a drama that follows one house and the families that live in it through several decades. NBC’s The Listener tells the tale of a man who struggles to lead an ordinary life while using his extraordinary powers of telepathy to help others. CBS pilot The Mentalist focuses on a mentalist who uses his abilities to solve crimes. And ABC’s Section 8 is a sci-fi drama from X-Men writer Zak Penn.

Other common themes include the always in-vogue police, lawyer and doctor shows. ABC is offering an as yet untitled show from Dave Hemingson about a law school graduate with a middle-class background who goes to work for a boutique firm in Los Angeles; Castle, a drama about a horror novelist working for the New York Police Department homicide unit; and The Unusuals, about a New York police precinct. CBS has Can Openers, about female physicians fighting to survive the doctors’ boys club and Exit 19, a pilot presentation about a quirky homicide detective balancing her job and her single mom status. The CW has Austin Golden Hour, about a group of young emergency room surgeons and EMTs and Wrecking Ball, about a young attorney and scion of a famous political dynasty who joins forces with a newly graduated law student to start a law firm. Fox has another law show, Courtroom K, a dark drama about a judge, a public defender and a prosecutor in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin courtroom.

There may be fewer pilots to choose from this year. But until the upfronts, there’s no way to know for sure which of these shows will see the light of day and which will end up in the scrap heap. Yet it seems clear that despite reports to the contrary, pilot season is alive and kicking in Los Angeles.