During last month’s Television Critics Association winter press tour, Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly declared “pilot season” dead.
We’re in the midst of pilot season right now. Networks typically order pilots — test episodes — of prospective new series in January and February, and then these programs are produced in March and early April. Network executives see the finished product in late April or early May and announce their fall schedules in mid-May.
This is a longtime convention of the TV business but not a particularly efficient one because it puts most of the talent — actors, directors — in demand at the exact same time, leading to desperate, last-minute deal-making as producers attempt to cast and create their pilot episodes.
“The broadcast, development and scheduling system was built for a different era,” Reilly said. “It was built in a three-network monopoly when we had all the talent and all of the audience. It’s highly inefficient.”
After shows are scheduled in May, Reilly said there are just six weeks to get scripts ready before cameras roll in mid-to-late July. And a September premiere date has already been locked in.
“Honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment,” he said. “Then they are competing, frankly, with a huge swath of cable that has a lot of flexibility in order pattern and flexibility in when the shows can go on. Cable networks are able to course correct creatively and reshoot and recast. When we do that, we are already driving into a time period. We are behind schedule. … Every first season show, whether it’s great or whether it’s in trouble, needs course correction and needs further cooking.”
He pointed to last fall’s freshman Fox hit “Sleepy Hollow,” which was unable to air 13 consecutive episodes, in part, Reilly said, because the show had a hard time producing episodes in time to make scheduled air dates. Production on season two, airing this fall, will start sooner to help alleviate the problem.
Reilly said his plan for Fox is to order series year-round and in January he had nine projects already in the works in advance of ordering any pilots, several of which were limited series targeted for summer premieres. Fox also ordered a drama series starring Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) with production to start in March, four months ahead of when most fall shows begin production.
Fox executives have a tendency to make these big pronouncements, and then it takes another decade before the TV business really changes. In 2004, then-Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman decreed that Fox would offer year-round programming. No more would the “gone fishin’” sign be put out over the summer.
Among broadcast networks, Fox has most aggressively pursued a year-round strategy, but it took rival networks longer to fall in line.
Aside from reality fare, NBC still mostly relies on busted series in the summer. ABC tip-toed into summer programming a few years ago in large part using cheap Canadian imports like “Rookies.” CBS got into summer programming in a big way just last year with “Under the Dome,” which returns this summer and will be joined by “Extant,” starring Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns from outer space mysteriously pregnant.
Fox’s rivals are not ready to throw in the towel on pilot season in any grand fashion, meaning Fox’s decree won’t have much impact on viewers in the immediate future.
Besides, other networks are already altering their approach to ordering series as evidenced by CBS’s summer shows — ordered straight-to-series without a pilot. NBC did the same thing with “Dracula” and “Hannibal.”
“Pilot season isn’t perfect, and it certainly is a very difficult time,” said CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. “It’s frustrating, but it’s also exciting. There was a great Forbes article about how the compression of time and how you’re feeling that sense of urgency … does sort of give way to this creative adrenaline.”
She pointed to CBS’s success 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,” Tassler said. “Danny Cannon, when he was set to direct the pilot, it literally was moments before we were supposed to start shooting. … 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.”
NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt said casting is half the battle and if a show can lock in a key star outside of pilot season, he’s more inclined to move forward with production off-cycle.
ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee said pilot season is largely dictated by the need to unveil new shows at May’s upfront, where advertisers make ad time purchases ahead of the new TV season.
“The upfront is very important to us and will continue to be important for the foreseeable future,” he said but noted that he has made several series orders outside pilot season this year. “I’m a gradualist, for good or ill, and we are gradually moving off it.”
Tassler said the nature of the TV business nowadays is change, which makes developing shows year-round not that unusual.
“We’re evolving. We’re changing. We’re adapting. We are experimenting,” she said. “It just comes with the way we operate every day.”
Perhaps this is how Fox’s proclamation will most affect viewers: It puts a spotlight on the mutating nature of the TV business not limited to pilot season.
Already viewers are seeing broadcast networks adopt the cable model of 13-episode seasons (see: Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” and the upcoming “24” reboot).
While some viewers object, there is growing recognition that shorter seasons may be in the best interest of maintaining a show’s quality.
“Look, I think now that we’re all here together, we can definitively agree that cable is far superior to network,” joked writer Damon Lindelof, who executive produced “Lost” for ABC before moving to HBO for his next series, summer’s “The Leftovers.” “This isn’t to say that there can’t be a great network drama or comedy that makes 20-plus episodes a year. We know that there are and have been. But I do think that, when you slow the conveyor belt down, the quality control tends to go up.”
Fox’s Reilly agreed.
“In this day and age, we can’t be in the one-size-fits-all business,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a set order pattern. There shouldn’t be a set time when we launch things. The audience doesn’t watch midseason and fall season. They don’t know about pilot season. They just want to watch a great show at the right time of year that’s marketed to them, that they can be aware of. There are so many things, thousands of original shows competing for their attention right now, we just can’t do it all at once.”
A bigger shakeup to TV could rest with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Aero case.
A 2012 startup backed by media mogul Barry Diller, Aero picks up over-the-air broadcast signals and distributes them to subscribers via the Internet for viewing on computer, tablet, smartphone or TV-connected devices (Apple TV or Roku). The monthly cost, $8, includes 20 hours of cloud-based DVR space, making it significantly cheaper than cable, although it offers only over-the-air channels and no cable networks.
Broadcasters filed suit against Aero because it does an end run around their retransmission agreements with cable operators, threatening the distribution fees they take in from cable / satellite operators if consumers were to switch from cable to Aero. (Aero does not pay broadcasters a retransmission fee.) In January the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case.
It seems unlikely that the current Supreme Court will rule against the broadcasting industry and in favor of consumers, but if that did happen, some broadcasters have threatened to fight back.
“If that were to come to be, which would potentially eviscerate our business, we’d have to take some drastic measures, including becoming a cable network,” Reilly said. “It’s something we don’t plan on or want to do, but we would be prepared to do. We’re not going to sit back and have our business destroyed with something that we think is unconstitutional, frankly.”
Kept / canceled:
Netflix renewed “House of Cards” for a third season ahead of its Feb. 14 second-season premiere.
NBC ordered an additional two episodes of new midseason drama “Chicago P.D.”
Disney Channel ordered a third season of comedy series “Dog With a Blog.”
TV Land renewed “The Exes” for a 12-episode fourth season.
NBC pulled low-rated comedy “The Michael J. Fox Show” from its schedule, according to The Hollywood Reporter, effectively canceling it after a single season.
USA Network canceled “Psych,” which will wrap its eighth and final season on March 26, followed by a live one-hour “Psych After Show” featuring a Q&A with the cast and producers in front of a studio audience.
HLN’s “Showbiz Tonight” has been canceled after nine years; its last installment aired Thursday.
CBS will air eight early season NFL games on Thursdays this fall (they will also air on cable’s NFL Network), calling into question what becomes of CBS’ Thursday night lineup for those weeks. … CBS went on a selling spree this week, selling rerun rights of “Blue Bloods” to Ion for airing this fall and selling subscription video on demand rights for “Elementary” to Hulu Plus, which will get access to complete seasons of past episodes after each season is broadcast on CBS. … Sunday’s Super Bowl telecast was the most-watched event in TV history (111.5 million viewers), but that didn’t stop PBS’ “Downton Abbey” from coming in second and improving on its performance last year (6.8 million viewers, compared to 6.6 million last year). … Scott Bakula (“Men of a Certain Age”) will star in a prospective New Orleans-set “NCIS” spinoff that will air as a two-part “NCIS” episode this spring. He’ll play a regional special agent in charge. … Adult Swim will expand to 8 p.m. EST on Cartoon Network on March 31 with Cartoon Network adding more original content online at CartoonNetwork.com.