PASADENA, Calif. During last month's Television Critics Association winter press tour, Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly declared "pilot season" dead.
We're in the midst of pilot season right now. Networks typically order pilots test episodes of prospective new series in January and February, and then these programs are produced in March and early April. Network executives see the finished product in late April or early May and announce their fall schedules in mid-May.
This is a longtime convention of the TV business but not a particularly efficient one because it puts most of the talent actors, directors in demand at the exact same time, leading to desperate, last-minute deal-making as producers attempt to cast and create their pilot episodes.
"The broadcast, development and scheduling system was built for a different era," Reilly said. "It was built in a three-network monopoly when we had all the talent and all of the audience. It's highly inefficient."
After shows are scheduled in May, Reilly said there are just six weeks to get scripts ready before cameras roll in mid-to-late July. And a September premiere date has already been locked in.
"Honestly, it's nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment," he said. "Then they are competing, frankly, with a huge swath of cable that has a lot of flexibility in order pattern and flexibility in when the shows can go on. Cable networks are able to course correct creatively and reshoot and recast. When we do that, we are already driving into a time period. We are behind schedule. ... Every first season show, whether it's great or whether it's in trouble, needs course correction and needs further cooking."
He pointed to last fall's freshman Fox hit "Sleepy Hollow," which was unable to air 13 consecutive episodes, in part, Reilly said, because the show had a hard time producing episodes in time to make scheduled air dates. Production on season two, airing this fall, will start sooner to help alleviate the problem.
Reilly said his plan for Fox is to order series year-round and in January he had nine projects already in the works in advance of ordering any pilots, several of which were limited series targeted for summer premieres. Fox also ordered a drama series starring Rainn Wilson ("The Office") with production to start in March, four months ahead of when most fall shows begin production.
Fox executives have a tendency to make these big pronouncements, and then it takes another decade before the TV business really changes. In 2004, then-Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman decreed that Fox would offer year-round programming. No more would the "gone fishin'" sign be put out over the summer.
Among broadcast networks, Fox has most aggressively pursued a year-round strategy, but it took rival networks longer to fall in line.
Aside from reality fare, NBC still mostly relies on busted series in the summer. ABC tip-toed into summer programming a few years ago in large part using cheap Canadian imports like "Rookies." CBS got into summer programming in a big way just last year with "Under the Dome," which returns this summer and will be joined by "Extant," starring Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns from outer space mysteriously pregnant.
Fox's rivals are not ready to throw in the towel on pilot season in any grand fashion, meaning Fox's decree won't have much impact on viewers in the immediate future.
Besides, other networks are already altering their approach to ordering series as evidenced by CBS's summer shows ordered straight-to-series without a pilot. NBC did the same thing with "Dracula" and "Hannibal."
"Pilot season isn't perfect, and it certainly is a very difficult time," said CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. "It's frustrating, but it's also exciting. There was a great Forbes article about how the compression of time and how you're feeling that sense of urgency ... does sort of give way to this creative adrenaline."
She pointed to CBS's success with "CSI."
"The pilot process is not perfect, but 'CSI' was the last script in, and those producers had to get that script in because of pilot season," Tassler said. "Danny Cannon, when he was set to direct the pilot, it literally was moments before we were supposed to start shooting. ... And it was the fact that it was delivered under that kind of pressure that sort of forced, in analysis, a very smart creative team to make the best creative decisions."
NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt said casting is half the battle and if a show can lock in a key star outside of pilot season, he's more inclined to move forward with production off-cycle.
ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee said pilot season is largely dictated by the need to unveil new shows at May's upfront, where advertisers make ad time purchases ahead of the new TV season.
"The upfront is very important to us and will continue to be important for the foreseeable future," he said but noted that he has made several series orders outside pilot season this year. "I'm a gradualist, for good or ill, and we are gradually moving off it."