Pilot Season is Dead. Long Live Pilot Season. - Broadcasting & Cable

Pilot Season is Dead. Long Live Pilot Season.

On the cusp of the upfronts, the process of programming a network is more complex, risk-laden and challenging than ever. It’s also pretty much the same as ever.
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Upfront Preview: The Haves and Have Nots

“I will say this in a politically correct way,” said Mark Pedowitz, president of The CW. He had just been asked whether pilot season is dead, and he pauses for effect before delivering the family-friendly version of the thought that just entered his mind. “The last I heard, a prototype is still a pilot.”

The comment was a dig at Fox, which set the agenda for any discussion about next season’s broadcast programming when, in January, Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly addressed the Television Critics Association winter press tour with a declaration of “R.I.P. pilot season,” and announced that this year his network would bypass the traditional process by which programming options for the upcoming season are evaluated. He added, “It’s nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment.”

Reilly’s was the first broadcast executive session at TCA, and every network head who followed fielded questions about his remarks— some responding with thinly veiled bemusement. “Perhaps pilot season for them is more challenging,” said CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler.

Four months have passed. The networks are now preparing for their upfronts, and comments by Pedowitz and other executives prove that Fox’s competitors have not exactly come around to Reilly’s way of thinking in the time since his very visible stand.

“We wouldn’t have The Blacklist if we hadn’t made a pilot,” said Jennifer Salke, NBC entertainment president. She goes on to declare that pilots can be incredibly valuable and the network will continue to invest in them. “That said, we’re stepping up and ordering episodes on a lot of things. We have multiple miniseries in development. That, by nature, is going to reduce the amount of pilots that we’ll need, especially in the drama area.”

Even as the demand for original episodes increases and the tolerance for reruns decreases, networks are relying less on pilots to give birth to original programming.

“For us it’s not about making pronouncements,” Salke said. “It’s about acknowledging that pilot season is incredibly challenging and we shouldn’t all be cannibalizing talent, trying to make everything at the same time. I don’t think anybody disagrees about that.”

But at Fox, pronouncements have been made, and now they must be lived by. The network has given series orders already to two comedies, two dramas, one animated series and three limited series to air next season.

While keeping straight the varied distinctions Fox makes when discussing its development process—ordering a pilot for comedy Fatrick “with an expected series order,” for instance— can be bewildering, Fox Broadcasting chief operating officer Joe Early does a fair job of differentiating prototypes from pilots. He talks about a “series track” category in which an initial script is ordered, followed by additional scripts and a series bible. If the network decides to move forward, it issues an order for a series. Fox hasn’t pulled the trigger on any series-track projects yet, and won’t for this fall. But at least the new semantics have premiered.

“We are in sort of that transitional year where we are willing all of it to happen, the deconstruction of pilot season,” Earley said. The success of the evolving process will be measured, he said, by “a higher percentage of success in series.”

But not everyone wants pilot season deconstructed. “Look, pilot season isn’t perfect, and it certainly is a very difficult time,” Tassler said at TCA. (CBS representatives declined to comment for this piece.) “It’s frustrating, but it’s also exciting,” she added, pointing to The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and CSI as shows that would not have succeeded without the pilot process.

Oh, Shift

Fox is, to be fair, hardly alone in preaching the inefficiencies of pilot season. But another factor driving down the number of pilots ordered is, as Salke indicated, the number of miniseries ordered.

The growing popularity of miniseries—or so-called event or limited series—is based largely on their utility. A four-, eight, 10- or 13-episode run can be produced without the production-related preemptions that come with a 22- or 24-episode season. They also can be plugged into the schedule at times such as midseason or summer, when the networks would normally be forced to go heavy on reruns, which audiences have showed less willingness to watch, given the breadth of original fare available on cable and digital platforms.

The other engine powering the vogue in miniseries is their appeal as event programing. The scarcity around a miniseries creates the opportunity to market it in a way different from a continuing series. It also helps networks fight time-shifted viewing.

“The big challenge for all the broadcasters, even the cable services, is figuring out how to monetize delayed viewing,” said Pedowitz. “The quality of the output from everyone is amazingly strong, and no one is getting truly paid full value for it.”

While the long-term goal for broadcasters is to convince advertisers to pay based on viewership over greater periods of time, the nearterm goal is to drive viewers who are watching 7, 14 or even 30 days out from the initial telecast to shift their viewing back within the C3 window for which advertisers do pay.

Next season will see more miniseries—not to mention one-off events such as NBC’s planned live broadcast of Peter Pan—in part because networks hope they will foster a sense of immediacy to drive viewers to watch live.

“It’s chasing the event,” Salke said. “Getting into people’s minds and saying, ‘Oh my God, I have to watch this when it comes on.’”

Networks also hope to create that sense of immediacy around dramas. Salke points to Blacklist as a drama that feels like event programming because of its cliffhanger nature. “In drama, it’s talking to creators and showrunners to say, what urgency can we put in?” said Earley. “It’s got to be there in the creative first.”

Comedy That’s All About Timing

Comedies, however, can’t have urgency bred into them in the same way as dramas.

“Counting all views is clearly the best way to gauge potential in a world with so many gray areas, whether we can monetize all those views yet or not,” said Samie Kim Falvey, executive VP of comedy and international scripted development at ABC Entertainment Group.

But the need to drive audiences closer to live viewing still exists with comedies. Several networks have experimented with having cast members tweet during episodes—in the hopes that viewers will realize that to interact with the talent, they must watch live. That practice will likely see more action next season.

The principal approach with comedies will be to attempt to broaden the audience. At ABC, Fox and NBC, where single- camera comedies dominate, expect to see more multi-cameras enter the mix.

“Historically when a multi-cam hits it’s bigger, it’s broader and it repeats better than single-cam,” said Earley. “Single-cam can deliver that high-end, upscale audience. But when you look at the multi-cams that hit, they can go a little bit broader and bring in bigger ratings, which is obviously better for our advertising partners and better for the network in terms of having circulation to promote the other comedies.”

Comedy development may be the thing that stays most consistent with past approaches as the development process evolves. Though Fox and NBC have already given out straight-toseries orders for comedies next season, none of the other networks have yet followed suit.

“Pilots are more instructive on comedy, where chemistry is really key, so we have a high percentage of pilots there,” Earley said. But he feels like this “transitional year” has thus far been a success. “I think the town will really come on board once we have some success and we are able to show why it works for each particular piece of content. I would say that all signs are positive right now.”

Upfront Preview: The Haves and Have Nots

“I will say this in a politically correct way,” said Mark Pedowitz, president of The CW. He had just been asked whether pilot season is dead, and he pauses for effect before delivering the family-friendly version of the thought that just entered his mind. “The last I heard, a prototype is still a pilot.”

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