March/April 2014
Volume 34 No. 3

April 2014
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U.S. TV Pilot Season: Doubts Run in Cycle, Value Remains

By Susan Hornik

FOX’s chairman of Entertainment, Kevin Reilly, surprised critics at this past January’s Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Los Angeles when he stated that his network would be killing off the traditional pilot season — which usually occurs in early spring — in favor of year-round production.

With a drawing on the screen of a FOX headstone marked “R.I.P. Pilot Season 1986-2013,” Reilly noted that the network had been trying to do this for a long time (FOX network was born in 1986). “Many of you heard from Damon Lindelof last week in his HBO session — Damon has had a lot of network television success — and he said something about ‘Cable is far superior to network.’ He said, ‘When you slow down the conveyor belt, the quality goes up.’ And I agree with him, and that’s what we want to do on FOX. This year, officially [and] for the first time, we are going to be bypassing pilot season,” he said. “The broadcast, development and scheduling system was built for a different era. It was built in a three-network monopoly when we had all the talent and all of the audience. It’s highly inefficient,” Reilly complained. He continued: “After the pilot season is over, we screen them and schedule them and announce them in a compressed and crazy, condensed twoweek period. We go to the Upfront [presentation to advertisers in New York City]. Then they have six weeks to get into production and get on the air. Honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment,” he said.

“We can create a better, more talentfriendly, more consistently creative way to do this. We have, in fact, been ordering series throughout the year.”
As a result, FOX already has several new series in production, as they plot a course for full-season rollouts.

“Of the balance of the many scripts in the process of being read now, I anticipate a few more will be ordered to some version of series or production for this cycle, and then I imagine a balance of those projects will be pushed and ordered for summer or early fall production next year to be almost a full 12 months ahead of development for the following season,” Reilly explained.

“We can’t be in the onesizefits-all business. There shouldn’t be a set order pattern…There are so many things, thousands of original shows competing for [the audience’s] attention right now, we just can’t do it all at once.”

CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, on the other hand, did not agree with the idea of doing away with pilot season — especially since hers is the number one network in total viewers and often wins in advertiser-friendly demographic groups.

“I can appreciate where [Reilly’s] coming from, and, obviously, he’s got to make decisions relative to his own company and his own needs,” Tassler noted. “Pilot season isn’t perfect, and it certainly is a very difficult time. It’s frustrating, but it’s also exciting.”

Tassler cited past television show successes like The Big Bang Theory and CSI as examples of when the pilot process worked well. “As a reminder, Big Bang was a pilot that we shot with Jim [Parsons] and Johnny [Galecki], but we didn’t have Kaley [Cuoco]. So we and [executive producer] Chuck [Lorre] looked at the pilot and said, ‘You know what: I could do better,’” Tassler said. “We shot a second pilot and we added Kaley Cuoco. Same thing with CSI.

“The pilot process is not perfect, but CSI was the last script in, and those producers had to get that script in because of pilot season. It was the last script picked up…When [Danny Cannon] was set to direct the pilot, it literally was moments before we were supposed to start shooting. It was the last pilot delivered, but it had to get in. And it was the fact that it was delivered under that kind of pressure that sort of forced, in analysis, a very smart creative team to make the best creative decisions,” Tassler acknowledged.

Mark Pedowitz, who runs CBS sibling network The CW, also plans to stick with the more traditional pilot season. “With the yearround schedule, pilot season is tried and true. It’s inefficient in some ways, and it’s very efficient in others,” said Pedowitz. “We do not do that many pilots at CW. When we do our pilots, they have a great ratio of going to series…Last year, we ended up doing seven pilots. Five made it to series… So, for us, it’s a very efficient system…I’m perfectly happy with the traditional in this case. I wish FOX well…[Reilly has] taken a real good leap, and I hope it does work out.”

ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee also anchored his network’s commitment to a more traditional pilot season. “The Upfront is very important to us and will continue to be important…for the foreseeable future…I’m a gradualist, for good or ill, and we are gradually moving off it. If you think of the things that I brought to you here for midseason — you know, we didn’t take Black Box to the Upfront. We didn’t take Rising Star to the Upfront. We did take Resurrection to the Upfront, and it’s definitely true that we have the ability to take our time, cast well, and really land a Kelly Reilly and a Vanessa Redgrave. But it’s equally true…that the focus and the deadlines that pilots bring have been extremely successful for American television for 50 years. And I for one sat in British television and looked up to the American ability to create factories of television that last for five, six, seven years. And I for one on this particular job am immensely proud of what our showrunners have done in pilot season to go through the Scandals and the Revenges and the Onces and the others,” Lee said.

When asked to comment about Reilly’s thoughts on pilot season, Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment said, “It’s funny. I hear he abandoned pilots and then just picked up a bunch of prototypes with an intent to go to series with extra scripts and stuff. So I don’t know if that’s not sort of another way of doing a version of the pilot process!”

Greenblatt was enthusiastic about pilots. “I actually love pilots,” he said. “The Blacklist probably would never have seen the air had we not made a pilot, because it came from a relatively young, inexperienced writer. We weren’t exactly sure immediately from that script that we should order a series. We found a great director to direct a prototype of the show, Joe Carnahan, who also helped contribute to what that show is and what it should look like. You learn valuable information from the pilot process. What I think Kevin was saying, and we all say on a daily basis, is we hate the pilot season. Now, we’re locked into it for a lot of macro Upfront reasons to a large degree, but I don’t think the pilot is a flawed concept. In some cases it makes sense to go right to series, as we did with Crossbones and Emerald City and Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s new show, but in a lot of cases a pilot can be really valuable. We just have to figure out, can we make them more offcycle? If we get a star that no one else has, I immediately feel like that’s half the battle.” And, he added, “Casting is the worst part of the pilot season. If you have Ellie Kemper attached to a show already and we don’t have to figure out who is going to play this central female character in Tina and Robert’s new show, then you’re ahead of the pack.”