Why TV Networks Are Rethinking the Pilot Process

Oct 23, 2013  •  Post A Comment

A shift is taking place in broadcast television, with networks increasingly rejecting the traditional pilot process in favor of direct-to-series orders, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

"On Oct. 17, Fox said it would bypass the pilot stage with a 13-episode commitment for ‘Hieroglyph,’ a fantastical drama from ‘Pacific Rim’ writer Travis Beacham," the report notes. "The project, which centers on a notorious thief plucked from prison to serve the Pharaoh, became the latest in a string of straight-to-series orders. Fox already has made series bets on Tina Fey, Matt Hubbard and Robert Carlock’s untitled women’s college comedy and the ‘Batman’ prequel ‘Gotham,’ while CBS is going the series route with the summer sci-fi drama ‘Extant’ as well as its Vince Gilligan-David Shore cop drama ‘Battle Creek.’"

One reason for the shift: "the influx of TV competitors, from Netflix to WGN America, that are elbowing their way into the game by offering massive commitments," THR reports.

One network source said of the latest broadcast orders: "A lot of this is about getting people to come to us over cable."

Another source said the game changer was Netflix’s 26-episode order for "House of Cards."

Said 20th Century Fox TV Chairman Gary Newman: "As networks are trying to figure out how to compete with basic cable, premium cable and productions for digital platforms, what everyone realizes is, they have to be bold and not shy away from big ideas." Newman noted that the pilot model may not accommodate those big ideas.

THR adds: "Take ‘Hieroglyph,’ whose ancient Egypt setting would make little economic sense if costs couldn’t be amortized over multiple episodes. Or ‘Extant,’ which wouldn’t have lured Halle Berry to star had it not received an on-air commitment."

The piece quotes an insider saying: "These high-level actors are not interested in being in a failed pilot."

"There are other reasons at play, too," THR adds. "Fox Entertainment Chair Kevin Reilly has explained that his moves are a way to ‘unwind’ his network off the antiquated pilot cycle — a ‘silly system,’ as he put it in a recent interview with THR. Fox spends as much as $4 million a pop to license each pilot, many of which viewers never see. The straight-to-series strategy allows networks and studios to have a product that they can exploit immediately on air and in the international marketplace."

But the pilot system still has its place, the report notes.

"For every direct-to-series success like CBS’s ‘Under the Dome,’ there’s a pricey flop like NBC’s ‘The Michael J. Fox Show,’" THR notes. "To land the latter, NBC committed to airing 22 episodes, and ratings have been low. Reilly noted that a pilot still can serve as a helpful test — or a hedge, when talented people go off track."

Added Newman: "From a network perspective, [direct-to-series] is a far riskier way to go, which is why you won’t see a wholesale change in this direction. But when you have the right property and the right talent involved, you’re going to see networks do this both to win projects from other networks and to make projects that at another time maybe weren’t possible because they were too big."

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