Networks hedge bets on new shows

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Four more new series--ABC's Help Me Help You, The Nine, and Men in Trees and NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip--have received orders for additional scripts.

The ABC shows have been picked up for four more scripts, while Studio 60--a high-profile underperformer--has been given an order for three.

Ordering additional scripts of new series in lieu of an early full-season pickup has become the norm for the Big Four networks this season.

Only five freshman series--NBC's Heroes, CBS's Jericho and Shark, and ABC's Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters--have been given full-season orders. That is half of the 10 new shows picked up for a full season at this point a year ago.

In the past several years, the networks gave additional script orders to a handful of ratings-challenged series, including NBC's E-Ring, as well as CBS's Threshold and Out of Practice last year.

In a stark contrast this year, aside from the two shows that already have been canceled--CBS's Smith and NBC's Kidnapped--virtually every other freshman show on the Big Four has received an order for additional scripts, including all the new Fox series: Vanished, Standoff, Justice, 'Till Death, and Happy Hour; NBC's Friday Night Lights and Studio 60; ABC's The Nine and Help Me, with NBC's 30 Rock also close to an extra-scripts pickup.

The number of breakout shows this year (Heroes, Ugly Betty) is the same as last year (Fox's Prison Break, NBC's My Name Is Earl). Still, the networks are massively hedging their bets with more backup scripts and fewer episode orders this year.

"It's probably a combination of huge production scale on the shows, heavy serialization on many of them, and keeping the writers working and excited about their show," NBC executive vice president Katherine Pope said.

Drama series are more elaborate than ever this year, with the pilots for half of them costing $6 million or more. Escalating production costs play a major part in the networks' hesitation to commit outright to nine more episodes. That applies especially to serialized dramas, a very popular genre this year, where additional scripts help writers and executives better hone the direction of the show.

By giving freshman series pickups for extra scripts, the networks keep the writers working and focused on the show. And if the script orders are followed by a full-season pickup, with the teleplays already in place, the shows are ready to resume production almost immediately with shorter hiatuses for the cast and the crew.

The networks also use the scripts order as a vote of confidence to shows that enjoy critical success but are soft in the ratings, such as Friday Night Lights and Nine.

An additional script pickup used to mean an almost certain full-season pickup. Last year, the script orders for E-Ring, Threshold, and Out of Practice all were followed by full-season orders. None of the series made it beyond their first year.

With so many series receiving additional script orders this year, the bets are off on which ones will make it through. But the examples of such slow-starters as Cheers, Seinfeld, and House, all on the brink of cancellation before exploding into megahits, give producers hope that strong additional scripts will help them clinch a full-season order and a chance at having their shows stick around for years to come.

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