Thursday, September 07, 2017

Why can't good pilot ideas be recycled?

Networks are in the process of listening to and buying pilot pitches. Hundreds, maybe thousands of ideas are hawked to those few beleaguered network executives assigned the thankless task of listening and deciding.

And you wonder – last year they heard another gazillion pitches. If they were good ideas then why can’t the networks develop them again? Why is it now almost standard practice that if a network passes on your pilot (at any stage) then that project is done?

Several reasons. One is that their marching orders change. And they can change at any time.

Personal example: David Isaacs and I once wrote a sophisticated upscale comedy pilot for Fox. They ultimately passed, saying it was more of an NBC show. A couple of years later one of the Fox executives from that period moved over to NBC and her boss said he wanted them to develop smart sophisticated shows. He wanted NBC comedy to return to the golden age of “Must See TV.” That executive remembered our Fox script and bought it for NBC. We then did a quick rewrite. The reaction was over the moon. Everyone was thrilled and excited. We were to start putting casting lists together. There would be very few script notes. This project went right to the head of the line.

Then that night MY NAME IS EARL premiered to big numbers and the NBC president said “no more sophistical urban comedies – now we want all single-camera rural half-hours. Our project was dead. In 24 hours it went from priority number one to pass.

So the pilot mandate from last season could be quite different this year and all the pilots from the previous era are suddenly birdcage liners.

Also, it becomes an awkward situation when the network believes the reason a certain good idea didn’t work was because of the execution of the writer. If they want to re-develop it they either have to go back to the writer they were disappointed in or risk lawsuits. It’s just as easy to shit-can the whole thing and look for something new.

In the past, networks would remake more pilots if they believed in them. I believe there are three versions of ALL IN THE FAMILY with different kids each time. Now networks routinely re-cast during the making of a pilot that either they ultimately get right or move on. And sometimes a network will pick up a show knowing they will need to recast. So it’s a matter of how sold they are on the show going in.

And here’s another reason: They forget. The project didn’t go. It didn’t have any real champions. Remember the final scene from Indiana Jones with that huge warehouse filled with discarded items that will never be seen or heard from again? Same scene only scripts.

Networks are also very mercurial. They may love an idea on Monday and by Thursday they hate it (which isn’t to say that by the following Monday they love it again). This is why producers hate to turn in a finished pilot early. The network screens it and really likes it. But new pilots keep pouring in. And by the time the network has seen yours for the fourth time they forget why they even liked it in the first place.

And finally: network turnover. If ever there was a revolving door in television it is network executives – especially mid level. The guy who bought your show last year is now trying to sell you a house.

So many good ideas are washed ashore. And the process is repeated every year. If you’re in there pitching good luck. May your idea be upscale and rural enough for them.


Douglas Trapasso said...

Do you think that the decision process at the Hulus and Amazons and Netflixes will become equally convoluted over the next few years? Or do you think writers will enjoy more creativity there?

Roseann said...

I worked on an entire season of a show for NBC which was completed before even the pilot aired.

By the time fall new shows came around the entire upper echelon of NBC had been replaced and none of the new guys put any faith in the already shot season.

No advertising killed it pretty quickly. And it was a really good series.

Andy Rose said...

Speaking of mid-level network executives, where do they come from? There appears to be a revolving door of people who go from independent producers to top-level network execs and then back again, but is there a career track where networks tend to find the entry-level development people? As you say, once they're aboard it seems that they either prove themselves with some hits quickly, or flunk out of the business entirely.

Jahn Ghalt said...

three versions of ALL IN THE FAMILY (pilots) with different kids each time

Norman Lear's memoir recounts more than one pilot with different actors for Mike and Gloria.

He recounts considerably more about the series-proper. For instance, Lionel's dad was always a "black Archie Bunker", but was originally played by an actor not-Sherman Helmsley. That actor was "famous" (in my mind) for conducting a "raspberry duel" with Archie. In later seasons, once Helmsley's Broadway play commitment had run out, he took on the role of George Jefferson. The former actor became George's brother.

Lear also recounts some anecdotes about Carroll O'Connor who sometimes started as a gloomy, worried, diva, who required encouragement to do his usual yeoman work as America's Favorite Bigot.

Darren said...

Hey Ken, I've really been enjoying the Masked Scheduler's articles about scheduling for NBC in the 90's. He seems like he would be a great guest for the podcast and you can talk about selling a sitcom from both sides of the network. Google tells me he's Preston Beckman. He's on Twitter @maskedscheduler

Donald Benson said...

A story idea: A writer develops the perfect pitch. Perfect in that a network always buys it, pays the writer a goodly sum for some scripts, then drops it when they discover it tests badly ... and the writer sells it to somebody else, simply typing it over with new character names and a few topical references. His secret is identifying certain qualities ONLY a network exec would like.

Said writer rolls out his perfect pitch each year, and between that and the handful of freelance episodes he lands each year, he's well off. Then one year, disaster strikes: A focus group is salted with network executives visiting from the east, and the perfect pitch goes to pilot. If it's seen, not only is the perfect pitch thereafter worthless, but it'll destroy the writer's reputation as a decent craftsman. And maybe stir up legal action with execs who faintly remember buying it.

Whoever can end it without swiping the last act of "The Producers" can have it.

Johnny Walker said...

It's the same here in the UK. I was at a short movie festival with a friend who had a film screening there. His was a comedy martial arts short, and it stuck out a mile for not being dour and pretentious.

Afterwards a man approached us both (thinking I'd been involved, when I'd only volunteered behind the scenes) and told us he was the head of late night programming for Channel 4 (a big deal at the time). He loved the short and wanted it (presumably for the "back from the pub" crowd).

He asked for a copy to be sent to his office. He still loved it and scheduled a meeting with my friend. It seemed like something was definitely going to happen -- then suddenly he changed jobs and his successor scrapped all his projects.

Just like that. So close, yet so far. I wonder how many stories there are like that! This was 17 years ago and my friend hasn't come close to the same experience since.

michael said...

Thanks to YouTube I got to watch the three pilots for Three's Company. The first one was the best, some guy named Larry Gelbart wrote it. Casting changes were interesting with Valerie Curtin being perhaps too good for a show that planned to focus on John Ritter's character.

MikeN said...

I thought it was funny, and consider it to have the funniest joke of all time, but I wasn't aware that My Name Is Earl was a big hit.

ScarletNumber said...


How quickly we forget. The show flamed out pretty quickly, but when it premiered it was massive popular. It also saved The Office by giving it a lead in.

Anonymous said...

CMT (Country Music Television) did just this when they briefly entered the multi camera sitcom arena back in 2010.
They put out a call for old scripts, received (I heard) 300, narrowed it to 4. They shot 4 pilots
(in a production method that is another amazing story unto itself.) They cast stars. And they chose one to
go to series, a half-hour family comedy called "Working Class" which came from a script 6-10 years old.
Melissa Peterman starred along with Ed Asner, Steve Kazee with guest stars like Reba McEntire, Lesley Ann
Warren, John Schneider and others. (Again, the production method was amazing.) The series aired 12 episodes
on CMT to ordinary ratings. Then the entire comedy initiative was shelved.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Considering the lack of originality in Hollywood it appears that pilots are being reused all the time. Maybe not literally, but I'm sure I can't be the only one that while watching a "new" show thinks, haven't I seen this show before? In fact in this upcoming season there are at least THREE military shows that look so similar I can't keep track of which show is on which network. Plus, you can't tell me there aren't writers and producers out there that have never tweaked an old pilot idea just enough that it looks different superficially but is, in fact, just a rehash of an old show.