This week, the big five broadcast networks will unveil their fall lineups to advertisers and press at the Upfronts in New York City, hosting star-studded presentations and lavish parties to lure advertisers and press.
The Upfronts also mark the end of pilot season, the frenetic time of year from January to April when the television industry churns out dozens of pilots, which are trial episodes of a new show that may or may not make it to series.
For decades, people in the industry have complained that pilot season is an antiquated, broken system. But because networks are working against the Upfront deadline, the traditional TV production cycle has stayed firmly in place.
All of that could be changing soon. Now, with cable and digital markets almost doubling the number of pilots being produced, networks are finally starting to experiment with more efficient ways of making television.
The pilot season shuffle
Pilot season is made up of many moving parts, with multiple productions trying to cast and shoot their pilots all at the same time. This creates a very serious shortage of resources. “All the studios, and all the networks are vying for the same stage space, the same directors, the same actors, camera equipment,” said Marshall Boone, an associate producer who’s been through nearly twenty pilot seasons. “Panavision ran out of cameras this year.”
It’s not easy for the casting directors either. Everyone is drawing from the same limited pool of actors. “That’s the drama of pilot season,” said Carrie Audino, a casting director who worked on two pilots this year, while continuing her day job as a casting director for “Mad Men.” “You’re putting together this original cast that’s going to be the foundation of your series, hopefully for years to come.”
And after all the scrambling to find the right director, location, equipment, and cast, most of the pilots made during pilot season will never even see the light of day. So far, of the 184 pilots that shot this year, only 38 have been greenlit to series by networks.
And the pilots that don’t get picked up are basically worthless, resulting in a huge financial loss for networks. Last year, $262 million was spent on pilots produced in Los Angeles alone according to FilmLA. A pilot can cost anywhere from $ 2 ti $5 million, which is a bigger budget than most indie movies.
Broadcast is starting to budge
Because of increased competition from cable and digital platforms like Amazon and Netflix, broadcast networks are starting to experiment with change, albeit slowly.
Last year, FOX signed Kevin Bacon for their new series, “The Following,” after cutting the season from 22 episodes to 15. Broadcast networks are also starting to shoot more pilots outside of pilot season.
“We shot two pilots out of the regular cycle this year, and they were so much easier and casting was easier,” said Patrick Moran, Senior Vice President of Development for ABC Studios, “You didn’t feel like every decision you were making with a gun to your head, and that’s how you feel during pilot season.”
Many in the television industry would love it if networks could figure out a way to spread out pilot production over the course of a year. But so far, they haven’t figured out a way to get ready for the Upfronts without the production calendar culminating in a frenetic, expensive pilot season. And as long as the Upfronts are such a massive source of revenue for networks, pilot season will continue to thrive, said Moran.
By the end of this week, it’s projected that broadcast networks will have sold $9 billion worth of advertising – more than enough to ensure that pilot season will be alive and well next year.