The Times They Are a-Changin’ in the broadcasting TV business. We’re in the first leg of pilot season but it feels a little bit like May — there are pilot orders, but there are also a ton of series orders, and everything in-between. The signs were already there in the fall — an unusually high volume of series pickups and early pilot orders heading into the official pilot season. And then Fox kicked off the annual winter TCA press tour last Monday with the announcement that it was abandoning pilot season. All other networks weighed in on the subject, and while none joined Fox’s Kevin Reilly in his R.I.P. Pilot Season proclamation, most have already been implementing some aspects of the strategy of gearing development towards series and trying to shift pilot production outside of the traditional January-April window when around 100 pilots vie for the same director, acting and showrunner talent.
But the changes, especially with ambitious drama projects that have been put on series track for production off-season, are creating challenges, exacerbated by the fact that those changes were not introduced at the beginning of the development cycle but in the middle of it, sending studios scrambling to adjust. There are several drama projects that are earmarked for series orders but are not slated to film until after the end of pilot season. Fox last week gave drama Runner (working title), from sibling 20th TV, what it calls “an off-cycle commitment for further investment towards series production” this summer. At least one other drama, Warner Bros. TV/Jerry Bruckheimer’s family thriller Home, is expected to get the same order, which involves the hiring of a small writing staff and penning additional scripts and a bible in anticipation of a series order. NBC on Sunday gave a 10-episode order to Uni TV’s dark Wizard Of Oz drama Emerald City, which too is setting up a writers room but will likely cast after May.
The model gives big in scope serialized projects the extra time they need to get their ambitious premises on track but it leaves networks without footage to show to advertisers at the upfronts. And worse, it leaves studios with no pilot to show to international buyers at the LA Screenings that immediately follow the May upfronts. Foreign pre-sales are crucial for studios, especially for expensive, high-end dramas that they take a big financial risk on deficit financing. Scripts and a bible are great, but buyers want to see tape or at the least, know which actors are in the series. I hear some studios are considering shopping the finished pilots to individual international broadcasters, which is a laborious task and it may also put studios at a disadvantage as buyers could be already stocked up for the season whereas they come to LA in May with open slates and wallets. Another option is what ABC did for its Once Upon A Time spinoff last year where the network shot a 19-minute presentation that was screened for advertisers in New York in May and for international buyers at the LA Screenings. But that would involve casting the project, or at least a number of roles during pilot season, something Fox and other networks are trying to get away from to avoid the fierce competition for talent.
The array of different orders on different time frames also pose logistical challenges to studios who have to find ways to staff them, putting a showrunner on a pilot, then squeezing in some time to get him/her to help on backup scripts for another project before they move onto a series. The current system has been in place for so long, any major change will create a ripple effect and will require a lot of adjusting.
For now, Fox is forging the way with a focus on series. NBC is looking to do 20% of its projects as direct to series, with CBS and ABC doing occasionally one-offs, like dramas Battle Creek and Black Box, respectively. Fox is not abandoning pilots, with Reilly calling them “a helpful tool, especially on the comedy side, but insisting that the network “will be ordering pilots geared towards series.” NBC’s Bob Greenblatt is a big fan of pilots. “I think a pilot can be really valuable, we just have to figure out can we make them more off cycle,” he said. CBS’s Nina Tassler, ABC’s Paul Lee and the CW’s Mark Pedowitz also spoke in favor of pilots as well as the current development model. “We are perfectly happy with the traditional system,” Pedowitz said. Added Tassler, “Pilot season is not perfect… but it does work for us.” She noted that pilot season is not such a short period — it’s four months — and both she and Lee noted that working under time constrains has worked well, boosting creative adrenaline and bringing out the best in writers and producers. “It takes coal and pressure to make a diamond,” Tassler said.