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FOX leaves pilot-season for cable model

FOX is leaving the traditional pilot season behind. At the TCA conference FOX chairman Kevin Reilly talks about moving to a cable-like model. The broadcast networks have been slow to adapt to the new age of television when viewers flock to premium cable, making this abrupt move significant.

There are roughly one hundred scripted shows on American television. Genres like talkshows, competitions and reality are excluded in that number. The large portion of all shows is shown on broadcast TV, with the big four, CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX received in the majority of American households. Yet, the TV giants have stood by as little Davids like HBO and AMC shamelessly stole viewers from underneath their nose. Not much changed in the tactic of the big four as they firmly stayed with their respective models until last year. It became clear AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ was here to stay as it consistently drew in more viewers than most network shows. NBC had to accept that none of its new comedies were taking off. ABC is still looking for that one big hit that lasts and isn’t made by Shonda Rhimes. FOX saw initial successes like ‘New Girl’ and ‘The Following’ slowly fade into the background. Thanks to a variation of shows, including ‘American Idol’ and sports, the networks have held their own. With Netflix on the move, however, the television landscape is moving faster than anyone anticipated and drastic measures are called for.

Pilot season is a phenomenon that largely only influences the industry, though it does eventually decide what premieres come fall. This time of year networks decide which scripts they’d like to move forward with. Last year that number was around eighty scripts per network. An enormous amount taking in the fact every script has one or more writers and producers attached and only a handful make it on the air. If a script is ordered to pilot a filmcrew comes in to shoot the episode. This often results in a huge move of in-demand actors, producers and directors all in talks of finding a project they like. The rough cuts of these pilots end up with the top executives who decide if they like what they see. Sometimes a focus group helps with that decision. The pilot is edited or re-shot where necessary and if it works, it’s ordered to series. This all happens before summer even comes along. After the May Sweeps, which sees the announcement of the new shows ordered and the network’s line-up for next year, marketing season kicks in. Hopefully, by the time the show hits TV it will draw in a big crowd. If it does, it might get a full-season order. If not, it’s canned and the talents and network are in time for a new pilot season to pick out new projects.

It’s a ritual that functions on high levels of stress, deadlines and impossible decisions in a small time frame. After all, a well screened pilot doesn’t have to become a success and a badly written pilot can become a beloved show. The entire season is a struggle with creative pressures, which is why writers prefer the cable system. Only a few shows are ordered by cable networks and usually with the full intent to see the pilot on the air with a full series attached. It’s a lot like how it works in The Netherlands. A recent example is HBO with ‘True Detective’ and ‘Looking’. Both had writers who mapped out the series before the pressures of shooting came along. It’s that kind of time and pace that Reilly would like to see for his shows. ‘Instead of making 10 pilots hoping to get one series on the air, I’d like to make it more 1-to-1 ratio’ Reilly says at the TCA press conference. Three shows are already in development since the fall and he hopes to add another three to that in the near future. The process saves money and a lot of work while encouraging a certain creative freedom.

For the industry this means less stress and less doomed projects. There’s more competition to land a TV show but once someone does, there’s more job security. For viewers this means that shows will have been well thought through before they find an audience. It becomes more and more apparent that sometimes shows, especially comedies, need an entire first season to find their voice, like with FOX’ ‘The Mindy Project’. Once they find their voice, viewers might have already abandoned ship. Despite the failing of some of its shows, it’s not obvious for FOX to move into this direction. Last year the network choice to adopt the cable model by adding a movie star to a limited series with ‘The Following’. Though the show was a huge hit at first, it quickly lost viewers and its creative decisions were heavily questioned. In the fall, FOX successfully launched a show according to the familiar network model in ‘Sleepy Hollow’ which is one of the surprise hits of the season. Two cases that argue against a change in the course of action. Reilly, however, is convinced this is the right route to take. ‘The success ratio on broadcast is not great, so we can’t do any worse.’

CBS, which has both massive scripted hits as well as critical darlings, has already confirmed it will stay with pilot season. Entertainment chief Nina Tessler says ‘pilot season does work for us, it isn’t perfect.’ With both old (‘NCIS’) and new shows (‘Mom’) performing well and a recent critical acclaim for long-running ‘The Good Wife’, that assessment rings true for CBS. Less so for FOX, who has struggled in the comedy field. New show ‘Enlisted’ is praised but hardly found an audience to keep up. ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ received a Golden Globe on Sunday but is far from the steady hit. Familiar stepping stones like ‘American Dad’ and ‘Glee’ are nearing their end with respectively half-a-season and a season-and-a-half to go. FOX is looking at cleaner schedule and Reilly wants to be sure to fill it with shows that work.

The shows that will likely grace the screens next fall for FOX are already high-profile thanks to their talents. ‘Hieroglyph’ is an adventure show about ancient Egypt with ‘Pacific Rim’s Travis Beacham attached. ‘The Middle Man’ is about the mob in Boston of the sixties and is to be directed by Ben Affleck. ‘Mulaney’ is a comedy about the life of stand-up comedian John Mulaney in New York. ‘Fatrick’ is a comedy scribed by ‘Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23’ writers and stars ‘Desperate Housewives’ Marcia Cross. ‘Cabot College’ is by ’30 Rock’ writers Matt Hubbard and Tina Fey and features an all-girls school that lets in boys for the first time. Finally there’s ‘Gotham’ about the early years of Batman. It takes an ‘Smallville’ approach as FOX secured all the rights from Warner Bros. to show all the famous villains and friends. ‘Rome’ and ‘The Mentalist’ scribe Bruno Heller oversees the project with ‘The Dark Knight’ writer David S. Goyer as co-writer. If FOX’ new leash on development works will be apparent next fall, but at least the network are no longer sitting still while the world of television changes around them.
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