OK, Amy, So You Don’t Think You Need Pilots. Just Don’t Crash The Plane.

It’s been a little more than a year since CBS programming executive Amy Reisenbach stepped into the role as network president, being elevated a few levels to become only the third female to have held that title in the 75 years since it was created.  We’re in the thick of what would have typically been her first true development cycle, as she came on board fairly late in last year’s process and, of course, we all know how the rest of 2023 threw monkey wrenches into any plans she or her colleagues might have had.  This week, in a lengthy interview with DEADLINE’s intrepid Nellie Andreeva, she shared some of her vision and rationale, one of which gave me a strong deja vu reaction:  Andreeva provided the context for Reisenbach’s bravado that begins shortly after she took over:

Just a couple of months later, CBS — which like the other broadcast networks had been gradually reducing pilot counts — ordered its fewest pilots ever during the 2023 pilot season, four, along with two development rooms for medical dramas Watson and The Pact targeted for the 2024-25 season.

That was the first indication of a shift in the network’s development strategy. A year later, CBS — believed to be for the first time ever — will not be ordering pilots this pilot season. Some of that is a residual effect from the strikes — many new broadcast series intended for the 2023-24 season, including CBS’ drama Matlock, headlined by Kathy Bates, and comedy Poppa’s House, starring Damon Wayans and Damon Wayans Jr., are being delayed until next season. CBS also recently gave a straight-to-series order to Watson with Morris Chestnut set as the lead, and NCIS prequel NCIS: Origins, with a Georgie & Mandy Young Sheldon spinoff also finalizing a straight-to-series pickup.  Securing CBS’ new scripted series for next season nine months in advance is part of the network’s strategy for long-term development which Reisenbach and her boss, CBS President and CEO George Cheeks, have come up with, taking a page from the movie studios’ playbook of setting up their release schedules a year or more in advance.

George and I sat down and we said, how do we take the schedule and how do we optimize it? How do we think more long-term? How do we think more strategically and how do we create more flexibility in the types of ways we develop, so that we can utilize all of our departments so much better?

Reisenbach then went on to spew a word salad of justifications which Andreeva dutifully captured; feel free to read the whole thing at your leisure if you choose.  I lost patience the moment I realized she was taking counsel from “Not So Curious George”, and at a time when the whole megillah about Shari Redstone selling the place was tipped by a filing registered just before Thanksgiving which SEEKING ALPHA described thusly:

In an SEC filing, the company noted it adopted a plan to offer severance benefits to the execs in the event they are terminated within two years of a change of control.

So it would seem that Cheeks already has his eyes on the millions he will take into retirement and is more than open to the wishes of his partner in crime who, like so many executives with a creative background, loathe the very idea, let alone expense, of pilot testing.  It’s not like we haven’t heard this before.  When Kevin Reilly took over the chairmanship of FOX at the beginning of 2014, he had similar visions, ones he personally told me about over and over again during the brief time we spent as “colleagues” at FX.  He was insistent that a group of randos couldn’t possibly grasp the nuances and particulars of what showrunners’ ultimate visions conveyed to executives like him, and that it was nearly impossible for a single episode of a show to fully convey it.   Too much artificial pressure, too many missed opportunties.  VULTURE’s Josef Adalian described the end result of that quest:

Five months ago, Fox network chief Kevin Reilly announced an ambitious plan to cancel network TV’s decades-old pilot season, resulting in a slew of stories (including a very recent one in New York Magazine) about how it represented a possible sea change for the crusty old broadcast business. Today, it was Reilly who got canceled, or maybe canceled himself: The network issued a press release saying that the veteran TV exec, who’d been at Fox since 2007 and had previously run NBC’s entertainment division, would be exiting at the end of June. It’s possible Reilly’s no-pilot pledge played a part in his departure, that his attempt to do Something Big scared his bosses. More likely, he was doomed by something far more pedestrian: His bosses, including 21st Century Fox head Rupert Murdoch, weren’t happy with Fox’s disastrous ratings performance of late and didn’t think Reilly’s upcoming crop of new shows would be enough to turn things around. Reilly may have had a very specific, even logical plan for moving Fox forward. Those above him, however, either didn’t share his vision, or didn’t believe in it enough to convince him to stay.

The fact that this shift in strategy is occuring at a network that literally made pilot testing a profit center, the vision of its longtime and now retired research czar David Poltrack is a bit ironic.  During an era when scant few shows taped in front of live audiences in New York, pages would invite tourists to test screenings of the network’s dozens of pilots.  In a 1986 story, THE NEW YORK TIMES’  Sandra Salmans explained:

Three, four, even seven times a day, CBS’s recruiters, stationed on midtown street corners, have been marshaling volunteers to go to Black Rock, the network’s headquarters building at 52d Street and Sixth Avenue, to watch television. Viewers are given green and red buttons that they are to press when they particularly like or dislike something happening on the screen. At the end they complete a lengthy questionnaire that asks them to rate the show and its characters, and to say whether they would watch it if it were running against ”Highway to Heaven,” say, or ”The A-Team.”  CBS has been conducting its market tests for weeks now, and that insight is the sort of thing it harvests. This year the network is studying no fewer than 31 pilots, believed to be a record number, and ”we have to test all of them,” said David Poltrack, the broadcast group’s vice president of research, who oversees the testing. CBS is cramming in an extraordinary number of screenings – as many as 14 a day in New York, even more in Los Angeles. By the time a pilot comes up for a vote by CBS management, it will have been seen by about 1,000 people on both coasts.

What Poltrack discovered is that unlike traditional focus groups for products or politicans where significant monetary incentives are needed, people who love TV only needed a tzatchke to be pacified.  Eventually, he convinced his boss Les Moonves to create a dedicated venue at Las Vegas’ PLANET HOLLYWOOD, where tourists who may have had bad luck at roulette could, for the price of a something like a pen or a keychain relax in air conditioning, answer a few questions and then, much like museum tourists, be dumped into a departure area full of far more expensive show and network logo swag (back when CBS actually embraced The Eye).  The venue was profitable for years.

But look, as someone who has had to deal with the difficulties of finding the right people and asking the right questions in order to pacify the nerves and frail egos of creatives, I get where Reisenbach is coming from, and I doubt she was ever inclined to give much credence to anything David Poltrack or one of his recruits would have said about a show she believes in.  I literally had to drag Reilly into screenings of our test groups and he’d critique the “casting” of the respondents as much as discuss the responses.  And I do understand why executives like this tend to be so paranoid.  It’s extremely easy to do bad research, and it’s not all that cheap to do it well.  And when David would get up his gumption when challenged to crow that “the network never put on a show that tested poorly that succeeded”, I’d counter with a story that Salmans related to her readers that shows the inconsistency of the inverse:

Mr. Poltrack never had a chance to test ”Murder, She Wrote,” CBS’s top-rated series (and third to NBC’s ”Cosby Show” and ”Family Ties”). Somewhere along the way, the star was changed from Jean Stapleton to Angela Lansbury, and there was no time to make a pilot. CBS’s management was convinced it had a winner, and it plunged ahead. ”We hate not being able to test things,” Mr. Poltrack said.

So I’m not gonna be the one that says it’s essential to do pilots, certainly at the volume that 20th century CBS did.  It might make a few vendor “friends’ of mine crabby since they’ve still got to pay for their daughters’ fancy weddings, but so be it; it’s not like there was exactly the kind of correlation and ROI a more scrutinizing and desperate exec like NSCG Cheeks could endorse.

But in light of all of this “revolutionary” talk came this brief note yesterday  from TODAY’s Gina Vivinetto:

NBCUniversal has ordered a pilot for “Suits: L.A.,” which is scheduled to begin production in Vancouver in late March, TODAY.com confirmed.

The pilot, which “Suits” creator Aaron Korsh is attached to write and executive produce, centers around a character named Ted Black, a former federal prosecutor from New York now leading his own private Los Angeles firm.  (Ted’s) firm is at a crisis point, and in order to survive he must embrace a role he held in contempt his entire career. Ted is surrounded by a stellar group of characters who test their loyalties to both Ted and each other while they can’t help but mix their personal and professional lives. All of this is going on while events from years ago slowly unravel that led Ted to leave behind everything and everyone he loved,” a logline for “Suits: L.A.” reads.

If ever there was a candidate for a series that didn’t require a pilot to be produced, a spinoff of a show seen for more than 57 billion Nielsen-measurable minutes last year, and who knows how many billions more on non-connected screens, this would be it.  The logline alone could be tested online, and the insights that could be gleaned on direction equally as valuable as anything obtained from a screening.  And a LOT cheaper.

Yet Comcast is willing to take the risk and make Korsh and company at least take into consideration pilot testing results.

Wonder how Amy would have taken that verdict?

I’d contend she’s taking far more creative license with the spinoffs of YOUNG SHELDON and NCIS, which if we’re to believe Nielsen were not seen for as any minutes as was SUITS, and definitely by fewer actual people.  But heck, these are unique times.  And if you believe those machinations of minutes that Poltrack’s successor spins for her bosses, CBS is still by some measures America’s Most Watched Network, a title only certain to be cemented after Super Bowl 58’s final numbers come in.

So I won’t be the guy yelling at clouds screaming pilots uber alles.  But I will be the one that will strongly suggest that it would be well worth your company’s investment to budget for testing of actual episodes within the production process.  Build in a hiatus week or coordinate delivery of a testable work in progress to what’s left of your research team.  Physically force people to go to venues and watch so that any threat of piracy is minimalized (The same companies that do pilot testing that way can do that for non-pilots, too).  Make sure you get a representative sample of markets, size and geography-balanced.   And don’t bother asking those competitive time slot questions any more; we both know the majority of even your audience doesn’t make forced choices like that any more.  There’s some time and cost savings right there.

These insights can not only benefit your promotion people (who apparently still need quite a bit of help, as our Tuesday musing noted) and certainly your sales people but it can give you the chance to call audibles on arcs, casting and even style ahead of any verdict from any measurement source, Nielsen or otherwise.  They actually can help make YOU more successful.  I know this.  Other executives besides Kevin Reilly did listen to me.  Many of them lasted longer at their future gigs than he did.   If nothing else, you might pick up something to help you with your next stop on the highway.

Do what you have to do to mollify your superiors, Amy.  Just don’t completely ignore the opinions of your ultimate bosses.  Your viewers.  They don’t have to board your pilotless flights.

Until next time…

 

 

 

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