It's time to cancel pilot season

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Getting a new show on the networks is an antiquated and expensive process. Let's cut the cord

One of the challenges the broadcast networks face is shaking off antiquated traditions. What worked in the past may not necessarily be the best way forward. But getting network to embrace change is not easy.

As the way audiences consume content continues to evolve, digital platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and the cable nets before them, set their own rules. For example, cable and digital feel no pressure to to start their new TV seasons the third week of September, when everything on the broadcast nets — new and returning — seems to premiere around the same time. They don’t have to gut the airwaves with new product in first quarter for midseason. They don’t have a certain number of hours of programming in primetime in need of original fare or a set number of episodes per show each season.

They don’t have to go through the arduous process of pilot season. It all just seems so much … easier.  

Personally, I do not understand why there is still the need for full-blown pilot season. I wonder what exactly the networks accomplish by competing for the best talent and writers in the same timeframe (which could increase costs and diminish the quality). It already seems like an uphill battle.

Pilot season, of course, is the time of year when the broadcast networks determine what shows to choose for the upcoming season. In each first quarter, the nets choose the pilots they think have potential to go to series, and by spring the actors and production crews are assembled to produce them. Focus groups across the country help determine what shows to bet on. Getting the show on air can often take a year if not longer. This seems archaic to me given the immediacy and availability of digital.

Fox actually attempted to reduce the pilot process two years ago when then-network president Kevin Reilly (who is now the president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment, displaying an impressive knack for landing on his feet) boldly announced it was switching to the cable development model. While not abandoning the concept of producing pilots, the announced goal at Fox was to only order pilots geared toward series. But isn’t the whole idea of producing a pilot to get a show on the air?

More "straight-to-series orders" in recent years have decreased the number of stand-alone pilots produced, as have "backdoor" pilots like "NCIS: New Orleans," which was introduced in a two-part installment of parent "NCIS." But since every broadcast network must now have a digital video strategy, testing the waters digitally to see what will resonate makes more sense than giving the power to focus groups. Why not put the digital element to use to really find out what the fans think?

The rise of these OTT content providers enables a producer to pitch an idea, get a commitment and literally get a show on the air within months. All it seems to take is setting up an initial meeting. And it often results in a production that seems less staged and stodgy. With an easier model, digital has become a breeding ground for more A-list talent.

Think Amazon drama "The Man in the High Castle," which was delivered as a pilot via Amazon Instant Video beginning on Jan. 15, 2015, and became the streamer’s most-watched original series."Transparent," also on Amazon, resonated via this modern-day testing, as did the majority of Amazon’s products. Netflix, meanwhile, is known for not even producing pilots.

While there is no one answer for why the broadcast networks remain tied to these old-time traditions (I wish it were that simple), old habits are obviously hard to break. Fear of the unknown often holds back these nets from moving forward. And this comes from the executives who seem to think that anyone over the age of 50 is set in their ways. That’s ironic if you ask me.

Antiquated or not, we are heading into pilot season. And what immediately caught my attention among the new class of wannabes is a potential untitled drama on Fox from "Empire" creator Lee Daniels about three Atlanta girls who form a band and rise to the top of the music business. It makes sense to strike while the "Empire" iron is hot. And "Marvel’s Most Wanted," spun-off rom "Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD," is no surprise given ABC’s deal with Marvel Entertainment.  But crime-solver "Training Day" on CBS, based on the 2001 movie, already tells me this may not be the most original season for ideas … again.

But we will save that subject for when the networks actually choose all these new shows that they claim will just not miss.


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