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Network Pilot Season: Why Someone Needs to Kill This Outdated Practice For Good

Enough already. The world of TV has forever changed, but the industry won't admit it. Can someone stage an intervention?

LAW & ORDER TRUE CRIME: THE MENENDEZ MURDERS -- "Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders" Promo -- Pictured: Edie Falco as Leslie Abramson -- (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)

“Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders” was picked up outside of pilot season.

Justin Lubin/NBC

One year ago, broadcast networks announced a flurry of new series like ABC’s “Downward Dog” and “Still Star-Crossed,” and NBC’s “Marlon” and “Midnight, Texas.” You probably don’t remember any of them, since they haven’t even aired yet. And if that seems more than a little ridiculous given the rapid-fire pace of Golden Age TV, you’re not alone.

Why do the networks still punish themselves with this annual fire drill? Cable and streaming services develop shows on their own timetable, and then launch when they’re ready. And if those shows fail, it’s not for lack of waiting for the right stars, or directors, to come along.

At the broadcast networks, the tight January-to-May turnaround means perhaps settling for second or third choices. What’s the point, if you’re just going to be sitting on a shelf until spring anyway?

Old habits die hard — but it’s time for this old habit to die, hard. Network executives claim pilot season persists because of the May upfronts, when advertisers dole out their spending for fall. But even the networks know this isn’t true.

At NBCU’s presentation Monday, plenty of focus was on returning shows (NBC’s “This Is Us”) or previously announced series on cable networks (Syfy’s “Krypton” and USA’s “The Sinner”). And of NBC’s three new fall shows, two (“Will & Grace” and “Law & Order:  True Crime —The Menendez Murders”) were picked up to series outside of the traditional pilot season cycle. Several of Fox’s (“The Orville”) and ABC’s (“Marvel’s Inhumans,” “Ten Days in the Valley”) fall series were also ordered outside of the traditional pilot cycle.

Pilot season made sense back when the networks weren’t allowed to own most of their shows. It became the time of year when producers (and their agents) shopped their wares and vied for a sale. But we now live in an age of vertical integration, where networks largely work with their own studios; they know exactly when and what they need.

Today, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution — and there doesn’t need to be one. Ad-supported cable networks and streaming services manage to put on upfront presentations and sell ad time regardless of pilot season. Netflix orders everything straight to series without a pilot. FX only pilots shows when it already has confidence they will go to series. Amazon has several “bake-off” style mini-pilot seasons throughout the year, but that’s also part of its marketing strategy.

ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and The CW should do the same. NBC doesn’t need much in the fall because of football. The CW is loaded up with DC comic book shows until they take a breather in midseason. ABC has serialized shows that also need to take a break in spring. Why the scramble to get everything ready for fall?

READ MORE: Amazon Pilot Reviews: All the 2017 Entries, Ranked Worst to Best

“I think some of it is that it’s an addiction,” said former Fox and NBC executive Preston Beckman. “It’s a game that networks and studios and agencies play. They’re addicted to the game. These guys are going to come back from the upfront, and within a week or so people are going to be knocking on their doors and pitching them programming. But yet, you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to make sales! That’s the biological cycle that these guys all operate on.”

Another network exec admitted that he likes the sink-or-swim ethos of pilot season. It’s a bit like boot camp, especially since once in production, series have just a little over a week to shoot an entire episode.

But the honest truth is the business has changed, and the networks have changed. Yet in one corner of the industry, they’re still gonna pilot like it’s 1999.

The whole system has become so backward that, even as networks spend this week unveiling new series for the 2017-2018 season, some shows from the current season are just now premiering. That’s the “hurry-up-and-wait” experience of most broadcast pilots ordered to series, as networks increasingly stick to tried-and-true shows for the fall, saving the freshman load for midseason (when that familiar fare takes a break).

READ MORE: New Fall TV Shows: Here’s Your First Look At The 2017-2018 TV Season

NBC and Fox have announced a total of 35 new dramas and comedies so far this week, but each will launch only three new scripted shows this fall. The overwhelming majority of the programming probably won’t premiere until sometime in early 2018, or after NBC wraps the Winter Olympics.

Kevin Reilly

Kevin Reilly, former president of Fox Entertainment

Turner

The logic is understandable: Stocking the fall with familiar fare is sound strategy in a world where a 1.0 rating is considered a hit. Plus it’s easier (and less expensive) to stick with shows that have already been marketed and have some viewer awareness.

Still, this is a system that’s designed to serve the system. not the viewers — and perhaps not even the industry. Turner boss Kevin Reilly was our Cassandra back in 2014 when, as Fox Entertainment president, he declared the death of pilot season.

“RIP, pilot season,” Reilly told reporters at a Television Critics Association press tour. “The broadcast development system was built in different era and is highly inefficient. It is nothing short of a miracle that talent can still produce anything of quality in that environment. When they are competing, frankly, with a huge swath of cable that has a lot of flexibility and order pattern and flexibility in when the shows can go on, cable networks are able to course correct creatively and reshoot and recast.”

Agents and studios – sensing a threat to the traditional way they do business – balked. But they didn’t have to worry: Reilly was gone from Fox later that year, and the network quickly pretended like none of that had happened.

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