Thursday, January 16, 2014

Kevin Reilly says Fox will eliminate pilots

Kevin Reilly, the head honcho at Fox, said at the TCA convention on Monday that he was eliminating pilots for dramas and would continue to make them for comedy but with an eye towards phasing them out.

I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I love a network president who’s willing to shake things up.

As long as he’s doing it for the right reasons. What are the wrong reasons? To save money. Remember a few years ago when genius Jeff Zucker ran NBC and eliminated pilots? The result: not one new hit that year. My sense is Reilly is not taking this tack for the same frugal reasons.

You certainly run a risk when you just order an idea or even a script to series. If it turns out badly you’re not just stuck with one hour, you’re committed to six or thirteen.  That's a major disaster.   Two or three of those and Rupert might have to sell MySpace. 

But the good news is if you’re a creator you can plan your project differently. Especially if your project is episodic. You don’t have to introduce all your characters and set everything immediately into motion. You can use your first episode to hook in the audience.  Translation:  You can make a more cable-esque series. 

Often times drama pilots can be deceiving. A feature director is hired, the production values are spectacular, and the results are sometimes dazzling. Then week two comes around and the director is a guy who did a few music videos and the production values are scaled way back. Remember that Andre Braugher submarine show from a couple of years back? Sensational pilot. Meh rest of the run.

In any event, it’s an experiment worth trying.

As for comedy, it’s a different animal. Most episodes are by-and-large stand-alone, and you need to see whether the show works. Has it been cast properly? Is there chemistry? Can the creator/showrunner really write a funny show? You’d be surprised how often the answer to that last question is NO.

There’s no question the current development model is flawed. And wasting money on bad pilots is certainly a major reason why. But I’ll tell you a larger reason: Research. The research is horribly inaccurate and networks place way too much importance on it. When 90% of new shows failed, and they got on the air because they tested well – what does that tell you? By skipping pilots, networks might have to go more on intuition and faith in the creators. And to me that would be a huge step in the right direction.

I'm not a drama writer, but if I were, I'd be running to Fox first with my idea.  


Dan Ball said...

Too bad Fox doesn't own the rights to Star Trek. After losing Star Wars to Disney, they could stand to recoup their losses.

{NiCeGuY} said...

The Office and Parks and Recreation were both greenlighted to 6 episodes without pilots if I recall.

John the Scientist said...

Friday question: I'm a trained market researcher, and I tend to hit much more often than I miss, but I work on highly technical products.However, when I interpret market research other have done, I ask for 2 things - the instrument (i.e. the questions asked - how you ask a question influences the answers you get in return) and the selection criteria for the participants - was it a truly a random sample, or did bias enter the process at that level.

What do you think is the reason for the abysmal research? Is it that they are asking the wrong questions of the audience. Showing things in isolation, rather than giving them a choice of which show to watch from a menu of pilots? Is it that they only sample certain demographics or geographies? In theory a large enough random sample should give answers pretty close to the truth. Something has to be skewed in the process for the results to be this bad.

I think know why the execs continue to cling to those methods - fear. This research methodology is orthodox, and gives them an excuse when things bomb. If they try something new and possibly better, and the show still bombs, the fault is 100% theirs, instead of the fault of the pinheads they tested the pilot on, am I right?

Ned said...

Rupert sold MySpace in 2011:

roylayer said...

I initially read this post's subject as "Kevin Reilly says Fox will eliminate PLOTS." Now, that's something that would have been interesting to see!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Not that John the Scientist is asking me, but ISTM that one reason the market research is so awful is that it's very hard for people to imagine how they will respond to something that doesn't exist yet. As a noted researcher (at Xerox's EUROPARC) said to me back in about 1993, if you asked people what they wanted to make using their computer easier they wouldn't say "a mouse" because they didn't know such a thing existed. Instead they'd have said something like, "a faster teletype". I think it's even harder in the creative arts, where the long production lead times mean you're guessing what people might relate to two (or more) years from now. There's your classic William Goldman quote: Nobody knows anything.

They always tell the stories about the stuff people have rejected - MAD MEN was turned down umpteen places, etc. But Goldman also makes a good point about this, which is that even though we laugh at the idiots who turned x project down, sometimes the timing is just wrong. Maybe the last five shows about feuds in Kentucky bombed so everyone thinks your new one can't possibly make it (and then it's JUSTIFIED), or maybe they think people aren't ready yet to move on from *1950s* nostalgia, especially with an unknown cast.

As for the Fox decision, I wonder if they're looking at things like the complete absence of network drama (other than THE GOOD WIFE) from the award nominees lists and realizing they have to do things differently now. Creatively, I think this is probably a good move (the Kings have said that they wanted to have Alicia find out about Kalinda and Peter much earlier, and the network convinced them to let it play out longer - which you can only do if you have some confidence you will be around to see the payoff!), though I do worry that ultimately it will mean they take *fewer* risks with the things they do green-light (proven names, expecting a lot more scripts written up front, Web episode tests...)


Joseph Scarbrough said...

Does this have something to do with HOUSE OF CARDS?I remember that video you shared of Kevin Spacey talking about shopping HOUSE OF CARDS around to different networks, and all of them wanting pilots, but they didn't want to do a pilot, so Netflix finally let them do the show the way they wanted, and now it's a big success, and I'm sure all the networks are kicking themselves in the pants for that. I mean, hey, they all turned Jim Henson down when he was pitching THE MUPPET SHOW, but then it turned out to be a big hit in syndication in the U.S., and the networks regretted not getting their hands on that show.

John the Scientist said...

Wendy, I agree on the hypothetical products, which is one reason Apple's concepts haven't tested well before they actually build them.

But I was under the impression that research in this case shows a selected audience Some early version of a complete pilot show. If that's the case, then something else is wrong. Ken, just what does this research entail, in fact?

Mike said...

@John the Scientist: I did some research and found this.
The question is too ambiguous and the sample too small. And it's fundamentally inappropriate.

Johnny Walker said...

I would also guess that people use the results to backup what they're already feeling. I'm sure most of the time that test scores are middling, and so if an exec doesn't like the sound of a project, he can find some way to backup their feelings.

Same goes for when they DO like a project.

It all sounds like bullshit.

DBenson said...

Eons ago, I remember a documentary about network television that included a test audience watching a pilot -- some kind of family western -- on a monitor while holding little things with thumb buttons. Audience members were supposed to click the button anytime they saw something they liked.

A kid's head was seen for an instant as he leaned into frame during the credits. Executives were heard noting that scored well.

Many years later, Eric Idle was talking about his short-lived American sitcom. He said the network dictated he always wear a green suit, because of the research. I believe it.

D. McEwan said...

Ken wrote: "I'm not a drama writer, but if I were, I'd be running to Fox first with my idea."

Well then, let's hope no one at Fox reads Must Kill TV, as they might have found it a tad scathing towards a FICTIONAL Fox Network president.