Old cop shows, minority actors among TV pilots

Thu Mar 4, 2010 11:27pm EST

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Rockford Files" and "Hawaii Five-O" are flying high during pilot season, minority actors are hot, but Britain not so much.

For the first time in a decade, there is no broadcast pilot based on a U.K. format after NBC's "Prime Suspect" remake was pushed because of difficulties casting the lead.

Sparked by the success of "The Office" and deregulation in the British TV industry in 2004 that handed producers distribution rights to their series, adaptations of British series reached a peak in 2007 with eight pilots. That number went down to six the next year and has declined since.

The reason for the cool-off is twofold. First, there hasn't been a hit U.S. series based on a foreign format since NBC's "The Office" and ABC's telenovela-inspired "Ugly Betty." That fact wasn't lost on the broadcast networks, which didn't pick up a single new series last May based on a foreign format.

Additionally, format dealmaking has become increasingly difficult as networks and rightsholders squabble over control of international territories.

Three foreign formats still made it to the pilot stage this season and, in another surprise, two came from Israel, population 7 million: CBS' drama "The Quinn-tuplets" and Fox's comedy "Traffic Light." (The third, ABC's drama "Generation Y," is based on a Scandinavian format, also a territory rarely mined by U.S. broadcasters.)

India, too, is making a breakthrough post-"Slumdog Millionaire" with two Indian-themed comedy pilots: "Nirvana" on Fox and "Outsourced" on NBC.

Still, while British formats fizzled this year, two pilots with a British pedigree and a similar theme -- a Brit coming to the U.S. -- made the cut: ABC's comedy "Awkward Situations for Men," starring Danny Wallace, and an untitled CBS comedy starring Paul Kaye.

On the casting side, the biggest surprise this season is the breakthrough for minorities as drama leads. After years of pledging a commitment to diversity onscreen, broadcast networks handed the top roles on six drama pilots to non-Caucasian actors: The spy couple at the center of NBC's "Undercovers" is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe; Forest Whitaker is the lead on CBS' "Criminal Minds" spinoff; Laz Alonso tops the Fox action drama "Breakout Kings"; Freddy Rodriguez headlines CBS' CIA drama "Chaos"; Maggie Q plays the title character in the CW's "Nikita" reboot; and Roselyn Sanchez is the lead in ABC's Latino-themed "Cutthroat."

By comparison, last year's crop of pilots included only one co-lead by a minority actor: "NCIS: Los Angeles," starring LL Cool J. The season before that, there were no pilots headed by minorities. Part of the reason for the diversity, which includes the casting of Blair Underwood as the U.S. president in NBC's drama pilot "The Event," might be the Obama Effect, which also would explain the popularity of the president's hometown, Chicago, as the setting for four pilots this year.

While the '80s were hot last year with remakes of "Parenthood," "The Witches of Eastwick" and "V" and the '80s-set "Gossip Girl" spinoff, networks have shifted back a decade this year with "Rockford," "Hawaii" and the '70s-set ABC comedy "Funny in Farsi."

If the rollback continues, '60s remakes could be in order for next season. Perhaps Ron Howard, the producer behind the "Parenthood" revival at NBC, will re-imagine "The Andy Griffith Show."

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