Is Pilot Season In A Terminal Nosedive?

In Mays not that many Mays ago, those of us fortunate enough to work in entertainment cleared our calendars for the first 15-20 days of the month in similar ways to how accountants do that for the first half of April.  Pilot season was to media, and especially to research teams, what tax season was to CPAs.  A frenzied deadline for multiple clients, a demand on our skill sets and lots of money at stake.

Pilot season was necessary for broadcast networks to sift through dozens of first episodes of primarily scripted series from both in-house and outside suppliers to jockey for time slots on the vaunted broadcast schedule grid.  As producers scrambled to schedule test screenings to help prepare final deliveries to networks, research vendors would work long into the night and on weekends to accommodate frazzled research departments who would react to their executives’ mercurial demands for data to help the spin in the presentation decks that would eventually accompany their biddings.  If you worked on the studio side, even mediocre results would result in going through the same process multiple times to accommodate edits and, if timing allowed, reshoots that would justify retests on an even more accelerated delivery timetable.

For researchers, it was a rare occasion to earn a seat at the big boys’ table as top creative execs and, often, even talent would call late at night to frantically get downloads on that night’s focus groups and, later, mall screenings so as to be able to lead the next morning’s reactions promptly.  After a few weeks of this intensity, those on the network side would be rewarded with a weekend in New York largely spent in conference rooms with multiple TVs, a magnetic board where scheduling possibilities would be debated like military invasions, and an awful lot of overly greasy but damn tasty Chinese, Italian and Indian take out food that somehow improved in taste when they’d be reheated in a microwave after midnight.

For years, higher-visibility executives would decry this process as expensive, mind-numbing and impractical, particularly executives who more often than not would see passion projects die completely or, worse still, lapse into the netherworld of “still under consideration” even after the glossy presentations to advertisers and international buyers that would make up the latter part of May.  During his days in leadership roles on both the network and supply sides of multiple networks, Kevin Reilly was a particularly outspoken critic of this ritual, and would regularly preface any interview or staff meeting with this POV.  He’s often urge that pilot season created artificial deadlines and angst that was meaningless to the viewer and championed solutions like shorter proof-of-concept demonstrations of several scenes rather than full-blown pilots, a “year-round” schedule that would pre-ordain different schedules for different seasons and slot backup shows not on the fall schedule upfront, and even straight-to-series orders for shows that were truly priorities.

As vertical integrated companies began to proliferate, and as audience erosion trends began to accelerate with the advent of time-shifting and later multiplatform availability, some of the ideas Reilly and his peers would champion would become more common, but often complacency and competition would sidestep any traction. But then 2020 and COVID hit, and pilot season was all but completely cancelled.  Only one broadcast network pilot, Warner Brothers’ Chuck Lorre comedy contender B POSITIVE, was completed before March 2020 produced the perfect storm that so many executives like Reilly had dreamed of.  Broadcast networks were now forced to adopt the policies of risk-taking from scripts and trusting their instincts that cable networks and streaming services had previously adopted, much to the happiness of top executives who appreciated the significantly lower sunk costs typically attached to the pilot process.   Even last year, as the optimism of the “summer of love” opened up some possibility of a return to the glory days, broadcasters reeling from the massive downturn in monetizable audience and viewer apathy ordered far fewer pilots and scheduled even fewer for the 2021-22 upfronts.  After all, they were still being presented virtually, and there’s only so much pomp and circumstance a de facto zoom call can generate.

The 2022-23 upfront week is days away, and for the first time this decade actual presentations will be held in ballrooms and theatres around New York.  Talent will be expected to shake hands and mingle with advertisers face-to-face.  Executives will be rewarded with a week or so in New York, just far fewer than in past years. The harsh reality, as the esteemed Nellie Andreeva wrote for DEADLINE earlier this week, is that the lingering impact of the 2020 perfect storm has arguably changed pilot season forever.  Said Nellie:

Decades ago, the pageantry of the broadcast upfront presentations culminated in the shows’ big attraction — each network unveiling their fall schedule to advertisers. The dissemination of information in the era of the Internet took away the shock and awe of the reveals as the schedules are now announced in advance, while the proliferation of broadband, which allows people to watch TV on their own time, took away the grids’ relevance as an increasing portion of viewing of broadcast shows comes from digital platforms.

Add to that the fact that broadcast networks have become a small portion of media congloms’ portfolio pitch to advertisers and that the development cycle has shifted post-pandemic, with only a portion of this year’s pilots in upfront consideration, and the unveiling of a fall schedule at the May 2022 presentations does not have the importance and urgency it once did.

We might have the first broadcast upfront where a network does not present a fall schedule this year. I hear Fox is considering not unveiling a grid at its May 16 event on the first day of the traditional upfront week. In the untraditional approach the network is mulling, it would have a unified linear and streaming presentation, in which Fox’s new and returning series will be highlighted but the actual fall schedule may be released a few days later. 

As FOX often championed these tweaks even in more robust eras, I can attest that possibility is extremely likely to occur.

For now, other networks are still moving forward.  But only CBS really has some decisions to make, as they actually have several legitimate candidates from non-internal suppliers in contention.  Five dramas from both CBS Studios and three different external suppliers are vying for orders, including a reboot of the TRUE LIES franchise that, titularly, is quite appropriate for this process. Another contender is a Sony-backed reinvention of EARLY EDITION, which somehow got four syndicatable seasons produced for CBS between 1996 and 2000 and, these days, qualifies as worthy of resurrection.

At NBC and ABC, only one outside supplier exists among about 20 shows still in contention.  NBC will, at it has been for several years, be almost virtually self-reliant on Universal Television as its content source.  ABC’s contenders are spread out among jockeying internal suppliers like ABC Signature and 20th Television, effectively making this season the Hunger Games for Disney executives.  An LA LAW revival featuring 80s-era heartthrob Blair Underwood is a leading contender for pickup at ABC–that show’s original incarnation had twice the number of episodes as did EARLY EDITION.

FOX and The CW are even more anticlimactic.  Per Andreeva and DEADLINE, FOX has only one traditional comedy pilot under consideration, and all three CW drama pilots have some connection to preexisting IP that unto itself makes testing a less consequential factor.

So while some level of frenzy and glitz will return this spring, it’s almost a certainty than the glory days of pilot seasons past is gone forever, much like the scheduling grids that disappeared from two major newspapers earlier this week.

A lot less stress, and a lot less reheated takeout, will occur.  Hopefully, some decent shows will emerge from the process. Fingers crossed.

Until next time..


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