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How the coronavirus is changing the way Las Vegas shapes TV

Updated April 8, 2020 - 3:16 pm

Television City was built for this time of year.

The CBS research facility, tucked in the back of the MGM Grand between the entrance to the arena and the pool complex, should have been hopping this week with visitors providing feedback on the network’s potential new fall shows.

Even if the hotel weren’t locked down, though, there would be nothing to test.

Of the more than 50 pilot episodes commissioned by the five broadcast networks for the 2020-21 season, just one — the CBS kidney-donor comedy “B Positive” from “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre — was completed before Hollywood rolled up its sidewalks and sent everyone home.

Testing, testing …

In an era when streaming services release entire seasons of their shows untested, the broadcast networks are still tied to the weird, wasteful concept of burning through millions of dollars to produce the first episode of a series, then focus-grouping it to within an inch of its life before deciding whether to make more of them.

Fewer than half of those pilots, on average, make the cut.

It’s silly, but it’s Las Vegas’ most consistent tie to television thanks to our abundant tourists and “locals” who represent every corner of the nation.

Television City isn’t alone. Test America inside the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort provides similar services. This time last year, there were at least four additional pop-up locations along the Strip testing new series for NBC.

Those facilities aren’t likely to help determine much of anything for next season, though, as most of those pilot episodes are expected to be abandoned.

“I’ve seen very little evidence that any pilots are going to be shot for stuff that would premiere in the fourth quarter,” says Josef Adalian, the Henderson-based writer who covers television as the West Coast editor for the New York magazine offshoot Vulture.

Instead, the networks are asking most of those showrunners to produce additional scripts — both as a barometer for future success in a non-testing world and as a way for filming to ramp up quickly as soon as it’s deemed safe.

Creatures of habit

Network executives aren’t talking — on the record, at least — about how they’re planning to fill the fall season.

Referencing screenwriting legend William Goldman’s famed “Nobody knows anything” quote about Hollywood, Adalian says the executives he’s spoken with are running through every scenario they can dream up. “There’s not a plan to bring the entire country back,” he says, “let alone Hollywood.”

Several options are on the table, depending on how long social distancing and stay-at-home orders are in effect. The fall season could be delayed, as it was in 1980 as a result of the three-month actors strike. It could be stocked with a mix of programming originally intended for summer and shows acquired from the networks’ corporate siblings. (The idea of ABC broadcasting the first season of the Disney Plus breakout series “The Mandalorian” is one Adalian particularly likes.)

Several projects this year — including the CBS update of “The Lincoln Lawyer” and an NBC mayoral comedy starring Ted Danson — were ordered straight to series. This year’s disruption during the heart of pilot season could lead to an increase in streaming-style orders. But the networks aren’t likely to abandon the process of producing pilots for more shows than they’ll ever air. If you’ve learned anything from watching broadcast television over the years, it should be that the networks are creatures of habit.

“It’s a very dumb process, but it can work,” Adalian says of pilot season. “It’s about R & D. The networks consider these pilots to be research and development for what works. And they like to test in Television City. They want to see if advertisers are going to like these kinds of shows.

“I think because the business model of broadcast TV is so tied to advertisers as opposed to just creating a brand or getting people to subscribe, I think they’re going to continue for the foreseeable future to want to test their things before they commit.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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