How Does A TV Pilot Get Picked To Go To Series?

It’s pilot pick-ups week! As various bright ideas (A Wonder Woman reboot, anyone?) bite the dust, the WSJ has all the answers about the rather arcane pilot development process used by the US Networks.

The nuts and bolts are simple:

The development process starts with writers making pitches in early summer, submitting first drafts in the fall and revisions at Christmastime. In January, writers hear if the network has ordered up a pilot. If a pilot is picked up in May, there is a mad dash to hire writers, build sets and write additional episodes before a show airs in the fall.

Simple, but expensive, with individual pilot episodes costing millions of dollars to produce. And, if the show is not ordered to go to season, there is no way to re-coup the loss. Even if a show is picked up in May, it can be cancelled by October. Networks have to guarantee a certain number of viewers to advertisers prepared to take a punt on a new show, and if the show doesn’t reach the specified audience, it gets cancelled.

All kinds of things can turn a promising idea into a flop. Casting may not click. A story line that made for a compelling pilot can’t hold an audience’s interest for 22 episodes a season, a fate that befell ABC’s “FlashForward.” Overly acquiescing to focus groups can lead to a bland finished product, producers say. Last season didn’t lead to a single breakout success.

It’s a very hit-and-miss process: throw stuff at the wall (of viewers) and see what sticks. But all facets of the entertainment industry take this approach, according to David Madden, president of Fox TV.

Executives say any artistic pursuit comes with long odds. “Most movies fail, most books fail, and most albums aren’t that good, whether they’re by committee or solo practitioners”.

According to the LA Times, this year will be more competitive than ever, with only 5 of the 22 selected new series expected to run into a second season. TV Dramas have to find their narrative footing – and their audience – with lightning speed if they are to go the distance.

Part of the problem, explain producers, is that digital-age audiences don’t just focus solely on their screens these days. Like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and blab on the phone while sailing down the freeway, networks executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.

“Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs,” said Laurie Zaks, executive producer of the ABC mystery “Castle.” “If you don’t capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don’t have a chance.”

So for all the writers, directors, actors and crew attached to shows that got rejected, the wait and anxiety is over. For those whose livelihoods depend on their show being a success in schedules in the autumn, the nail-biting is just beginning.

The Math of A Hit TV Show– Wall Street Journal
TV Dramas Are Losing Favor With Busy Viewers – LA Times