The face of television is changing

CanWest News Service
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You may not notice it on your TV screen but, behind the scenes, a change may be happening in the way television programs are made.

You may not notice it on your TV screen but, behind the scenes, a change may be happening in the way television programs are made.

March and April are traditionally when more than 100 pilot episodes of new comedies and dramas are rushed into production, for the 35 or so available slots on the U.S. networks' fall schedules. Actors and actresses, many of them from Canada, descend on Hollywood, hoping to land that potential big break - a supporting or even starring role in a new TV series that might make it onto a network's fall schedule. It's a time-honoured tradition that has given popular-entertainment TV some of its biggest and most treasured hits, as well as some of its most spectacular failures.

This year is different, though.

Hastened by - but not solely caused by - the recent 101-day writers' strike, some networks are taking a hard look at a business model in which tens of millions of dollars are spent chasing after an ever-dwindling number of viewers.

NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker said last month that his network will scale back the pilot model, as part of an overall strategy to move to a year-round season.

The fall network schedules are unveiled before advertisers in May, even though most viewers won't see those programs themselves until September. The Canadian networks, CTV, Global, Citytv and CBC, follow in June. NBC is going ahead with a fall schedule, but with fewer new programs than in years past.

Program executives at Global and CTV are watching closely to see what happens.

"This is a fresh and interesting approach by NBC," said Barbara Williams, executive vice president of content for Canwest Broadcasting and Global TV. "We're looking forward to seeing how this plays out, for the advertisers and the viewers."

An episode of a typical TV drama costs an average of $3 million to make in the U.S., and slightly less in Canada. Television pilots, with their higher start-up costs, can carry a price tag of anywhere from $5 million to $10 million to make. The 2003 pilot episode for Lost is believed to hold the record, at an undisclosed cost of between $10 million and $14 million. The fuselage of a wrecked L-1011 jet was shipped from the mainland U.S. to Honolulu, Hawaii, to add to the show's realism.

Zucker and other network executives believe, however, that the cumulative cost of so many pilots chasing so few available spots is extravagant. Coupled with a more fickle mass audience, this season's scaling back of pilot episodes could be an early sign of a wider trend.

Organizations: NBC Universal, Citytv, CBC Canwest Broadcasting

Geographic location: U.S., Canada, Hollywood Honolulu Hawaii

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