Coronavirus Pandemic Derails Broadcast Staffing Season

Thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this year’s broadcast staffing season is all but over before it began.

Most of the shows in contention for series pickups for the 2020-2021 season, and even those that had already been ordered to series, had shot virtually nothing before the major studios and networks began shutting productions down to prevent a further spread of the virus. That means that almost none of the 60 shows on deck for next season will be assembling full writers’ rooms any time in the near future if at all.

The development throws yet another roadblock into the path of Hollywood’s writers, who are already grappling with the fact the WGA and the ATA remain engaged in a bitter standoff over packaging fees and other issues, while a potential writers strike looms at the end of April.

According to multiple broadcast network insiders, the networks are still figuring out the playbook for this unprecedented situation. One option that has been floated is for the networks to simply order some shows that had pilot orders straight to series, based on the strength of the existing script and the star power of the cast and creators behind the show. Others have suggested that the networks could order multiple backup scripts by assembling mini virtual writers’ rooms. That would allow them to get a better sense of where the show is going before deciding on a series order.

But Liz Alper tells Variety in no uncertain terms that she is not a fan of that idea.

“I hate that idea,” she says. “I could get in a lot of trouble for saying that but I hate that. I don’t think there’s a writer that likes a mini room. Mini rooms are a way to keep writers from being paid what they should be paid. If you’re getting writers into a room to write, that’s not a mini room. That’s a room. Mini room is a bulls–t term used to pay writers a fraction of what they’re worth.”

“I think it will waste a lot of people’s time and a lot of people’s money,” she continues. “I say that really hoping that I don’t screw anybody out of much needed dollars, but I don’t know anybody who likes a mini room.”

Alper, a member of the WGA board of directors, made sure to note that her words reflect her opinion alone and do not necessarily reflect that of the guild as a whole.

But several TV lit agents who spoke with Variety are not so optimistic about the mini room option either. They said that they would expect the networks to perhaps order one additional script, which would serve more as a way to maintain relationships in this difficult time rather than serving as a true barometer of a show’s series potential.

What’s more, many current shows that are on the bubble are now considered shoo ins for renewals, as the broadcasters are more likely to take a risk on a show that may be underperforming versus a completely new one that hasn’t shot one frame of footage. This will particularly affect young writers looking to break in, as they and their reps will have no time to gain any traction with showrunners ahead of the start of production, whenever that may be. Agency sources say they are expecting showrunners to rely more than ever on their personal relationships with writers to staff rooms rather than reading submissions. Some showrunners on this year’s crop of broadcast pilots are said to still be taking submissions but nowhere near all.

The good news is that lit agents — at least those currently working at agencies that have signed the new WGA code of conduct — are not putting as heavy an emphasis on the importance of broadcast staffing season as they have in years past, given that the rise of cable and streaming now means staffing occurs year round.

Still, agents are also coming to grips with the current order of things when it comes to deal making under this new environment. With production shut down for eight weeks or more, putting together deals for creators is now a marathon rather than a sprint. As it now stands, anything that was in the development pipeline prior to the shutdown remains fair game, while agencies are beginning to take some meetings on newer projects off their books.

The problem is if deals on things that were already in the works close soon and the shutdown does not end when expected, networks and studios could invoke their force majeure clauses and put the projects on hold or scrap them altogether.

With no immediate end to the shutdown in sight, the sad reality is all involved will have to adopt a wait and see approach from here on out.

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