In all of my years reading about the television business, none of the fine writers on that beat — Emily Nussbaum, Bill Carter, Todd VanDerWerff, etc. — has ever summarized the “pilot” process as cleanly and succinctly as Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield. Here he is, explaining Marsellus Wallace’s wife’s claim to fame: “The way they pick TV shows is they make one show; that show’s called a pilot. Then they show that one show to the people who pick shows, and on the strength of that one show, they decide if they want to make more shows. Some get chosen and become television programs. Some don’t, and become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.” The news out of this week’s Television Critics Association press tour was that Fox chairman Kevin O’Reilly was making the bold move of eliminating pilots from the television equation. On closer examination, the change is much more specific; he’s eliminating pilot season, one of the organizing principles for TV’s fall-centered schedule. That’s a good start. But the initial reports were more promising. They should kill pilots altogether.
First, let’s do definitions. “Pilot season” is a tradition as old as the hills; every spring, the networks order a metric ton of scripts, which are then narrowed down to dozens of pilot episodes, which are then produced and narrowed down again to create their fall and midseason schedules. It’s a frantic period of production and decision-making, based around the principle of throwing as much shit at the wall as possible, and seeing what sticks. And while it’s like Christmas for struggling actors, many of whom make the pilgrimage to LA from New York, Chicago, and elsewhere for the prospect of short- or long-term work, the sheer volume of stuff that is produced yet never actually seen seems awfully wasteful.
(This, presumably, is at least one of the major reasons for Fox’s announcement. The revenue-challenged broadcast TV business has been chipping away at the pilot model for years; lately, we’ve heard more about “pilot presentations,” wherein the creatives will produce a few scenes from their series, rather than a full episode, to show what they can do.)
Reilly’s logic, which is sound, is that the frenetic scheduling of pilot season and the fall-launch model are growing increasingly outdated, out of step with not only the far more fluid seasons of cable (where shows are launched year-round, instead of with a tight September focus), but the binge-watching preferences of today’s viewers. So Fox will put shows — shows they’re excited about, not second choices — into production year-round, will give cable-style 13-episode orders to some programs (not as a slight, but because it makes sense for the show), and will focus on series, instead of pilot, orders for new shows.
This all makes sense. But they’re not throwing out the idea of the pilot episode. “We are abandoning pilot season, not pilots,” Reilly stressed to Deadline. “Pilots still are a helpful tool, especially on the comedy side where the alchemy is fragile, and you really need the casting to inform your decision on the project.” Reilly’s pro-pilot argument clings to traditions and assumptions that have proven increasingly unreliable. Ever watched the pilot episode of Friends? (I’m gonna go ahead and out myself as a Friends-watcher here. We all have our weaknesses.) It’s a slog, because that was a show where the comedy ultimately grew out of our knowledge of the characters and the chemistry between the actors — none of which were in place early on. How about those first, six-episode seasons of The Office and Parks and Recreation? Neither was anything close to the shows they’d become, because they needed those initial, midseason years to get imitation (of the BBC original and the American Office, respectively) out of their systems and find their own way. Hell, Reilly’s biggest current comedy hit negates his argument: New Girl’s pilot episode featured Damon Wayans Jr.’s Coach as the loft’s fourth roommate, switched out for Lamorne Morris’ Winston before the second episode when Wayans’ Happy Endings got an 11th-hour pickup.
So if networks aren’t investing in a sample episode, what are they banking on with a new series? Easy — the promise of the show, and the talent of the people involved. The dearth of unaired pilots in the cable landscape is telling; HBO and AMC and FX and the like choose their series primarily from scripts and pedigrees, and often the entire season is shot before a single episode airs. It’s not just that it’s more efficient — it forces the network to make a real commitment to shows, to give them a fighting chance on the air, instead of pulling them after a couple of episodes if they’re not immediate hits. And who knows, maybe the higher stakes (from both the standpoint of money and exposure) prohibit the networks from taking those kinds of chances. But if we’ve learned anything about television in the past few years, it’s that when it comes to scripted programming, cable’s doing something right.