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Fall pilots eager to fly, but few make it to air

by Frazier Moore
| April 30, 2010 9:00 PM

NEWTON, Mass. - The stately house on a quiet street in Newton had been vacant for a while.

For a few days last month, though, the "For sale" signs went away.

The homestead was temporarily occupied as one of several shooting sites in the Boston area for a CBS pilot called "Quinn-Tuplets."

The proposed series features Anna Chlumsky, David Giuntoli, Kenneth Mitchell, Amber Tamblyn and Sam Witwer as grown-up quintuplets named Quinn.

Yet "Quinn-Tuplets" might not reach the airwaves.

The show is but one of more than 80 scripted pilots in production that are scheduled to be evaluated soon by the five broadcast networks.

Each is bucking for a berth on a fall prime-time lineup. Only a handful will make the cut.

If "Quinn-Tuplets" doesn't pass muster with CBS executives, it will be tossed - never seen by the public - on the scrapheap of unwanted TV pilots.

Such is the game of win or lose played out each pilot season.

Lately, a year-round program rollout has found favor in the industry. Even so, the May "upfront" presentations - heralding a new crop of fall shows to advertisers and the world - remain. The 50-year-old rite perpetuates the need for TV pilots.

Shawn Ryan, with series to his credit such as "The Unit" and "The Shield," has a pilot in the works for Fox called "Ride-Along."

"When you're producing an ongoing show," he said one hectic day recently, "it feels like you're in an out-of-control car hurtling 100 mph and you never know whether you'll get someplace or crash. With a pilot, you start at a standstill, and you're told you've got to be at 100 mph - tomorrow!"

In January, scripts are picked by the studios from hundreds in development. Production begins. By late April, each finished pilot is delivered to the network that ordered it. Then, in mid-May, the networks unveil their fall lineups, with a lucky few new shows part of the mix.

"The advantage is, it's a system that everybody's used to," said David Stapf, president of CBS Television Studios. "The disadvantage: We're all going after the same directors, the same actors, at the same time."

Stapf has a dozen pilots under way for the sister CBS network (besides "Quinn-Tuplets," they include a revived "Hawaii Five-O" and "Reagan's Law," a cop drama starring Tom Selleck), plus two for the CW. These came from scores of scripts and series pitches he'd been shepherding for months.

But for Cindy Chupack, the script-development phase of her NBC project, "Love Bites," took place two years ago. Then NBC opted not to go the next step to a pilot. Early this year, much to her surprise, Chupack learned that "Love Bites" had been reborn: The network's bosses wanted a pilot.

Under the aegis of NBC's Universal Media Studios, she started hiring a crew and casting roles.

Chupack (executive producer of "Sex and the City") conceived "Love Bites" as an hourlong romantic comedy anthology with loosely connected tales.

Besides a slate of guest stars, she signed Becki Newton ("Ugly Betty") and Jordana Spiro ("My Boys") as regular cast members.

"We're going from words on paper that only a few executives saw and decided not to make before, to what we have now," Chupack said.

"Love Bites" will be competing against established series that NBC might retain, plus about 18 other pilots - including the high-profile "Rockford Files" remake and a legal drama starring Jimmy Smits.

The multilevel strategies that shape a network schedule make an episode of "Lost" seem one-dimensional. Audience flow, counter-programming and weak spots in the lineup that need to be fixed all enter into the calculation.

Chupack expects to hear the news - good or bad - as late as May 16. If her show is among the chosen few, she'll jump on a plane to be in New York for NBC's morning presentation to ad buyers on May 17.

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