ABC Sets its Sights on Female Viewers With 2020 Development Slate

Can its female-forward strategy help return the network to its mid-2000s era glory?
  • Projects based on the lives of Erin Brockovich and Mandy Moore are among those being considered this year by ABC President Karey Burke and her development team.
    Projects based on the lives of Erin Brockovich and Mandy Moore are among those being considered this year by ABC President Karey Burke and her development team.

    With the broadcast network development cycle back in full swing. Primetimer’s resident pilots expert Jean-Maxime Renault is firing up his coverage of pilot season this week with a look at some of the most exciting projects being developed at each of the broadcast networks. Today: ABC. Which of their projects will be ordered to pilot, and which of those will get a series order? Visit our pilots area daily for complete coverage.

    The alphabet network has a lot to prove this year, following 2019’s pilot season disaster during which only 3 of the 9 drama pilots ordered and 2 of the 8 comedy pilots ordered got picked up to series. Despite generally positive reviews for Stumptown, Emergence and Mixed-ish, none of ABC’s new fall series qualify as hits, nor have they fulfilled the network’s relatively new President Karey Burke’s desire to bring "some much needed swagger back to broadcast television." 

    It doesn’t help that ABC is relatively low on the list of Disney's priorities at a time when its streaming platform Disney+ is receiving all of the studio’s flashy Star Wars and Marvel properties. On the bright side, 20th Century FOX Television is now a part of the Disney brand, and Burke will now have the ability to split her pilot orders between 20th and ABC Studios. Three of the most popular network shows of the past decade were from 20th Century FOX Television: This Is Us, Empire and 9-1-1. They're strong, and stronger than ABC Studios right now. 

    In her first full development season at ABC, Burke will continue to pursue the goal she set when she joined the network in December 2018, which is bringing back female viewers and reclaiming the title as No.1 network with women. At last summer’s TCA tour, she said she was shopping for "a big, provocative soap" and "bold, loud storytelling" that could take the form of a family, workplace or sci-fi drama in the style of Lost, Brothers & Sisters or Desperate Housewives. She's also on the hunt for another franchise soap like flagship drama Grey's Anatomy, which will enter its 17th season next fall, and a strong "crimedy", a crime drama with comedy like Castle. On the comedy side, as Modern Family comes to an end in May, she's looking for a new signature family comedy but also wants to add more adult fare like Bless This Mess. In another words, she wants to return ABC to its mid-2000s heyday. 

    Here's an extended list of what may or may not fit her mandate, along with our initial thoughts on which projects seem the most promising from this vantage point:


    90s Popstar (20th CENTURY FOX TELEVISION)
    A small town Florida family is forced to adapt to an extraordinary new reality when their teenage daughter goes from aspiring singer to pop superstar practically overnight. 

    => Something Karey Burke hasn’t expressed, but which seems to be a trend at ABC this pilot season is the hunt for a musical soap (perhaps that's what she meant by "loud" and "bold"). One of the strongest contenders is produced by This Is Us star (and former 90s teen popstar herself) Mandy Moore, alongside This Is Us co-showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, based on her own experiences. The writer is Amanda Lasher (The Bold Type, Sweet/Vicious) and Marc Webb is attached to direct the pilot. This project would seem to touch multiple genres: family fare, soap, emotional drama and musical.

    Backlash (ABC STUDIOS)
    After the high-profile rescue of a child in a working-class town, rescue workers and family are deluged with praise until suspicions begin to mount that the accident was quite different than it seems. Unpeeling the truth of what happened that day will uncover the town’s many secrets and, in the process, explore hero worship, the media, celebrity culture and the lengths people to which will go to in order to be seen.

    => Written by Lizzy Weiss (Switched at Birth, Sorry For Your Loss) and produced by Jon Harmon Feldman (Designated Survivor, Dirty Sexy Money), Blacklash has a put pilot commitment and sure sounds provocative and bold. Its longterm potential likely depends on the exact nature of the mysteries as they’re revealed.

    Best Kept Secret (ABC STUDIOS)
    A mother and ex-intelligence agent whose long hidden her past from her family is forced to return to work when she discovers her daughter has been tapped to join the same group she left years before. 

    => This pitch isn’t earth-shattering, but an action thriller led by two women from different generations who share the same blood would seem to meet Burke's female-forward mandate, while not alienating potential male viewers. It’s produced by Erica Messer, who spent nine seasons as executive producer/showrunner of Criminal Minds, which ends this year, making her available to shepherd new projects under her overall deal with ABC Studios. It would be exciting (and provocative, following her troubled past year) if Felicity Huffman were cast in the lead role, but at this point that's just my secret wish.


    A vampire soap about empowered, immortal women and the things they do to maintain wealth, prestige, legacy, and their nontraditional family.

    => While it comes from uber producer Greg Berlanti and Riverdale's creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, I’m not convinced this project make sense for ABC. Described as a "sexy contemporary reimagining of Dracula with strong horror elements," this drama with a trio of powerful female leads sounds more like a cable/streaming show. How far can ABC go in the horror genre? Not very. And how sexy can it get? This is network television, after all. Still, it’s IP with potential -- we'll see what they can squeeze out of it. 

    From the same team behind NBC's midseason entry Zoey's Extaordinary Playlist comes this high-concept musical drama about a woman who jumps back and forth between life as a pop icon and an alternate reality where she never left her hometown sand instead got married, had a child and works as a high school music teacher.

    Epic (ABC STUDIOS)
    Set in the fairytale universe of Disney, this romantic anthology will center on heroes, villains, princes, princesses and all manner of magical beings. While it will pay homage to the classic signposts we’re all familiar with from the stories we grew up with, Epic will endeavor to create a whole new batch of characters as it explores love in all its forms. 

    => Is Epic a Once Upon A Time spin-off without saying as much?  Since it's written and produced by the same duo, Eddy Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, that seems a fair assumption. Why is it in the works at ABC and not Disney+? That's a bit of a head-scratcher, but presumably Disney still wants to it known that they own a network, and were to be picked up, it would probably stream exclusively on Disney+ at some point. The most worrying fact about Epic is the fact that it’s being pitched as an anthology. Broadcast television and anthologies don't seem work well together, at least not stateside. ABC should know that by now after American Crime, Wicked City and several other failed attempts.

    Fall & Rise: The Story of 9/11 (LIONSGATE TELEVISION)
    To commemorate and honor the 20th anniversary of the events of September 11, ABC is developing a limited series based on the Harper Collins book for 2021. Fall and Rise chronicles the stories of those who were lost, saved and forever altered by the most heinous acts of terrorism on American soil. "This profound portrait of humanity and resilience in the face of unspeakable horror will honor the history and events of this tragic day" per the network. It would be a strong and important show for ABC. 

    Five women who share little more than the carpool lane are thrown together when one of them disappears, an event that brings each of their own personal crises to light, forcing them to confront the unique and formidable challenges of FML: Female Mid Life. 

    => Is this Burke's new Desperate Housewives? That's probably why this pitch was bought by the network, but it remains to be seen if it has the same potential that the Marc Cherry show had at the time. The two series share a producer, Sabrina Wind, who was Cherry's longtime producing partner and just created her own company at ABC Studios. Casting will be key.

    In any given year, over 600,000 people are reported missing in the U.S., and over half that number are people of color that the country seems to forget about. A Public Relations Specialist who was once herself one of the forgotten ones, now works to make sure there is always someone looking out for the missing people. But unbeknownst to anyone, this everyday hero is hiding a chilling secret of her own.

    => Described as Scandal meets Without A Trace, this project produced by usual suspect Greg Berlanti and written by All American showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll, is one of the rare procedurals ABC is developing this year. It has a put pilot commitment, making it even more likely to get the nod. 

    Happy Birthday Avery Scott (CBS TELEVISION STUDIOS)
    It's Avery Scott's birthday, and if you were to believe her Instagram, everything about her life is perfect; but when her first (of four) ex-husbands throws her a surprise party that her own mother doesn't even attend, it sends Avery into an existential crisis prompting an emergency therapy session; feeling semi-responsible for Avery's empty and meaningless life, the therapist sends Avery home with a calming tea to help her sleep; when she wakes up the next morning, it's 2001 and Avery has been given a second chance to make her life more substantial than a hashtag.

    => This one's bold, no question about that. It may also be ridiculous, but bold and ridiculous can work well together, as long as the writer is competent. And she is. They both are, actually. Rina Mimoun and Anna Fricke, who frequently worked together on Dawson's Creek and Everwood, are the creators of this high-concept drama based on the book The Year We Turned Forty by Lisa Steinke and Liz Fenton. This one will likely hinge on hiring the right director and casting the right leads.

    Moss Landing (20th CENTURY FOX TELEVISION)
    Produced by Lee Daniels (Empire, Star) this musical series set in a small Florida coastal town focuses on a disgraced country star and an African-American gospel and soul singer who fall in love. Over the course of the first season, the mysteries of Marion and Sky’s troubled pasts will unravel as we watch them navigate the highs and lows of rebuilding their lives, and experience the love that binds them together, all set to genre-blending music numbers.

    Plastics (20th CENTURY FOX TELEVISION)
    Three women band together to start their own practice in the competitive and male-dominated world of plastic surgery. Having put it all on the line to get to this point, they rely on one another to survive the complicated, exhilarating and sometimes heartbreaking world of plastic surgery, all the while trying to navigate their own complicated personal lives.

    => While we know very little about this project, I have to admit it’s a current favorite of mine.  It seems like it could be a female version of Nip/Tuck, which is a concept and a world worth exploring through the female lens. I'm not sure ABC needs another medical drama between Grey's Anatomy, Station 19 and The Good Doctor, but creators Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain (Dollhouse, The 100, The Fix) are competent writers with great potential. If the three leads are good, this could be a serious contender for Burke’s flagship drama.

    Inspired by the life of activist Erin Brockovich, this drama revolves around Annie "Rebel" Rebelsky, still working as a legal consultant without a law degree twenty years after the release of a big Hollywood movie that made her famous. A funny, messy, brilliant and fearless real-life super hero who cares desperately about the causes she fights for and the people she loves, when Rebel applies herself to a fight she believes in, she will win at almost any cost.

    => While I worry that Krista Vernoff already has enough on her plate as showrunner of both Grey's Anatomy and its spin-off Station 19, her mentor Shonda Rhimes was able to juggle four shows, so why not her, too? She's both the creator and an executive producer on this show, which was originally developed last season with a different writer. While the script did not move forward, ABC remains high on it. Vernoff came on board with a new take, and here we are. I'd say this one is a strong contender because it's already very marketable, with a story to tell to the audience even before it starts. Nobody has forgotten Erin Brokovich. Casting, however, will be tough. Following in Julia Roberts' footsteps is a hard task and they can't bet on a unknown name for this. Also, if midseason legal drama For Life works (it was ABC's best pilot this year), Rebel may not look as attractive. Thing is, they'll have to decide on a pilot order before knowing .

    The Prince (ABC STUDIOS)
    Set in the fantastical but cut throat world of fashion, this series explores the dynamic, mercurial relationships of a family that has mixed personal with business and the toll it takes on loyalty, love, and familial bonds. When a wunderkind fashion designer jeopardizes everything with his brash, larger than life attitude, the livelihood of his own family and the family he has created within his company are at risk of being destroyed.

    => ABC has developed several new fashion dramas since the end of Ugly Betty in 2010, but none have made it on the air. Writer Amy B. Harris (The Carrie Diaries, The Comeback, Gossip Girl) has teamed with designer Zac Posen for this one, and although the story doesn't sound all that original, the network may have finally found what they’ve been looking for. ABC certainly seems to high on Harris, who just signed a new overall deal with the network. 

    Thirtysomething(else) (ABC STUDIOS)

    This revival of the 1980s series Thirtysomething revolves around the children of the characters from the original show, who are now 30-something themselves. Raising children never ends, but who could have known how hard it would be to raise parents?

    => Long before Brothers & Sisters, Once & Again, Parenthood and This Is Us, Thirtysomething was the seminal relationship and family drama that captured the angst of the baby boomer generation and its struggles with real-life issues. Three decades later, in the era of "OK Boomer!", a revival somehow makes sense. Creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick are back, as are as key members of the cast: Ken Olin, Patricia Wettig, Timothy Busfield and Mel Harris. A fall launch is already in the cards. While the project has a pilot order for now, ABC has committed to open a writers room and is gearing up for a series order. 


    Untitled Revenge Spinoff (ABC STUDIOS)

    Guided by one of the 2011-15 series' favorite characters (who has yet to be named), a young Latinx immigrant arrives in Malibu to exact revenge on a Sackler-esque pharmaceutical dynasty, whose insatiable greed lead to the murder of her biochemist mother, the destruction of her family, and a global epidemic. 

    => Here's one unneeded and mostly unwanted spinoff. Yes, Revenge was a breakout hit for ABC when it debuted in fall 2011. But that status didn't last long, and the series ended with disastrous ratings just four years later. Creator Mike Kelley, who has since produced the just as bad What/if for Netflix, is back as co-writer and producer alongside Joe Fazzio, who worked on the original show and How To Get Away With Murder more recently. The Latinx twist doesn't warrant an order in my opinion, but if the returning "favorite-character" from the original series turns out to be tech wiz Nolan Ross played by Gabriel Mann, which is highly likely, then let's just say it wouldn't be "that" bad. 


    ABC has a lot more multi-camera projects in their development pipeline than usual. Among them: Bridges (20TH CENTURY FOX TELEVISION), a multicultural family comedy about family, identity, and forgiveness which tells the story of a family of strong Texas Latinas who have their world turned upside down when they lose the beloved mother who held their family together, and are left with the white, conservative father they blame for tearing the family apart. Freedom (Universal Television), in which five very different women are chosen for early release from an overcrowded Florida prison. Flouis (20th CENTURY FOX TELEVISION), a multi-camera comedy about the extravagant Faye Caldwell, who has spent her life living off high-rolling Vegas sugar daddies, but when her pool of men finally runs dry, she and her codependent adult son, Louis, seek a fresh start in her hometown of Basic, Indiana. Let's Stay Together (ABC STUDIOS), which will star Damon Wayans (My Wife and Kids, Lethal Weapon) as a single father who finds out it's hard to get rid of millennial kids (who have kids of their own). Finally, there’s the already ordered to pilot Untitled Nate Bargatze (20TH CENTURY FOX TELEVISION), a comedy dealing with Bargatze's struggle moving back home to Tennessee and being caught between his wife and opinionated parents. 

    ABC also has a good amount of single-camera projects in the works. Among them: Barracudas (20th CENTURY FOX TELEVISION) about sisters Becky and Bernie Byrnes, two spectacular but incredibly different divorce lawyers who spend their lives getting people out of dysfunctional relationships, but who can't get out of their own dysfunctional relationship  with each other. It's produced by Jason Winer (Modern Family, Single Parents) and should star Rachael Harris & Cheryl Hines. Cupcake Men (20th CENTURY FOX TELEVISION / ABC STUDIOS) inspired by a real life story of male friends who opened a cupcake shop in Austin, Texas. It's produced by Lee Daniels & Michael Strahan. Magic Motor Inn (20th CENTURY FOX TELEVISION), a potential spin-off of Fresh Off The Boat, which centers around an Indian family whose daughter attends school with Eddie. Married With Roomates (ABC STUDIOS) is about a young couple who stretches and buys a house they can't afford. Now, instead of filling their home with kids, the couple has to fill it with roommates. High-concept comedy Once More (UNIVERSAL TELEVISION) revolves around Will Wilde, a 45-year-old sad sack of a man whose life has not turned out as he’d hoped. That is, until one day when Will makes a wish and wakes up to find himself back in his childhood bedroom. It’s 1999 and Will is 12 years old again, only now he has all the knowledge and memories of his 45 year old self. The Turners (CBS TELEVISION STUDIOS), about a close-knit family of black doctors who face major changes when their recently retired parents decide to get back into the workforce. Now, three siblings at the height of their careers are forced to work alongside their parents, and assert their independence everywhere from the emergency room to the living room. Finally, there’s This Is Not a Drill (SONY PICTURES TELEVISION) about a group of friends in Hawaii, who, when they think they're about to die in a missile attack, blow up their lives for the better. 

    Jean-Maxime Renault is a TV addict based in Paris who writes about television and movies on AlloCiné (aka "the French IMDB"). In 2015 he created Season Zero, a website about television development and pilot season, which is now a part of Primetimer. Follow him on Twitter @SeasonZeroCom

    TOPICS: ABC, Karey Burke, In Development, Pilots, Women and TV