Tuesday, May 05, 2015

the pilot process can make you CRAZY

Now we’re getting down to it, pilot-wise. The last pilots have been delivered and networks are cobbling together their upcoming season. It used to be exclusively their Fall season but now they pretty much order all the shows they plan on rolling out throughout the course of the year – Fall, Mid-season, Early March (slim chance of renewal), Late March (no chance – just schedule fodder), and Summer.

The scene shifts to New York where all the big decisions are made. A highly respected agent once said, “Everything turns to shit over Mississippi.” He’s right. Shows that network execs were excited about in LA seem to lose their luster. The testing has come back. Someone higher up doesn’t like it.  Other pilots have now come in they like more.  The network wants to shoehorn an actress into the show, the showrunner balks, quits or is fired, and now there’s a mad scramble for a new showrunner. Negotiations for license fees get complicated. Power agents, showrunners with clout, and studios lobby for the best time slots. Networks waffle on what direction they want their Fall season to take. Add another hour of comedy? More drama? Move comedy out of Wednesday night?

How do the new pilots mesh with existing shows? What’s a compatible lead in? And then there’s counter-programming. Is this the year you can topple THE VOICE? And if so, with what? Is THE BLACK LIST vulnerable? Have they run out of cities to tack onto NCIS?

If you’ve got a horse in this race it can make you CRAZY. Rumors swirl hourly. You read the on-line industry trades and shows are on the schedule, then dead, then a strong candidate for mid-season, then maybe another network is interested if the first one passes, then that option flames out, then they’re alive again at the first network.

Meanwhile, creators of these shows are currently going through lists of potential writers should they get picked up. Since everyone will be staffing at the same time they try to hedge their bets by taking meetings beforehand. But everything is up in the air until the schedule is locked. For the second year of ALMOST PERFECT we were going to hire Phil Rosenthal as our number two if his pilot didn’t get ordered. It did (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) and we had to move on.

A good sign is when a network gives a new show permission to HIRE his staff even before it’s picked up. But even then, you're not out of the woods. At the end of the day the network might decide to order only six and not thirteen and some of the writers you wanted to hire now pass to seek a show with more episodes. AAAAGH!!!!

The truth is unless the deal is signed and the ink is dry you have no guarantee your show has been ordered. Here’s my favorite story. A creator/showrunner was told his show had been picked up for the Fall. He and his cast were summoned to New York to appear at the Upfronts presentation. They fly across the country, guzzle champagne, land, the showrunner gets a call only to learn there was a change in plans and his show was now dead. Ooops.   Everyone had to turn right around and fly back to Los Angeles. (If you think they drank on the first flight...)

What happened over Mississippi?

Good luck to everyone with a pilot in contention. But remember my someday-famous line: The winners go to work, the losers go to Hawaii.


Oat Willie said...

I thought you might have a comment on the Letterman special from last night.
One thing I noticed was there was nothing from the NBC days, when the show was funnier and we were all younger and stoned-er. "The World's Most Dangerous Band!"

VP81955 said...

OT, but certainly of interest to you: with your Top 40 roots: Saturday (May 9) marks the 50th anniversary of the official birth of KHJ's "Boss Radio" format, whose efficient style revolutionized Top 40 radio that stations throughout North America either adapted the Bill Drake format or created their own versions. I know you were an admirer of KHJ (and from hearing some airchecks, I can understand why) and hope you might contribute an entry on KHJ's effects on the industry and its legacy.

Anonymous said...

Letterman is the end of an era, and it's going out with a whimper, unfortunately. He got carried away with himself, and turned into shit. Conan intended to carry on the tradition, but didn't have the chops. Now talk shows are just a hot mess. Jimmy Kimmel is like Carson's poor dumb lowbrow brother. He's like the guy Carson would put in as a guest host so there would be no threat of him being replaced. Fallon just plays parlor games and shills for the talent, and Colbert is just a hack pundit from Comedy Central.

I'm a boomer, and it reminds me of a comment a twenty-something said to me: "Your guys era had all the stars and talent, in TV and Films. All we have is a lot of riff raff dropping in and out. Getting our entertainment is like hanging out at a subway station."

I couldn't disagree.

-Chilly Mac

Anonymous said...

fall, mid-season, early March pilots can be very stressful to wait. But I like waiting for the list. It's a great journey every year.

Busy at the office here. Have 15 scripts to read. OMG. Will do 7 now. Boss is nice.

Keep re-writing
and live life

Tim W. said...

And this is why the best shows are on cable, now. I'd love to see them start doing more sitcoms. We'll probably get more quality comedies, as well.

TheThomme said...

Not feeling much sympathy for "the losers go to Hawaii"...

RockGolf said...

@Oat-Willie: What Letterman special were you watching? I saw lots of NBC clips. If nothing else, you can tell by the chairs, like the one Chris Farley flipped. Twice.

H Johnson said...

I don't much care now-a-days, but when TV was good, I always looked at the new television season like a new baseball season. Everyone does everything they can with the best intentions and still more than half the time it turns to shit.

And almost always it seemed to be the fault of the suits upstairs.

Baseball is going pretty good for me this year so here's hoping there's something good to watch on the tube this year too.

Aloha (from the island of non-losers...)

-bee said...

I'd take even final-days Letterman over Carson any time.

Although I grant Carson's writers put some effort into the monologues, there was a smug arrogance to the lameness of the skits. The mystique around Carson is way overblown.

I have liked Letterman a lot over the years, although at this point I am basically done with talk shows all together, although I'll check in to see if Colbert comes up with anything worthwhile.

Igor said...

Ken, two Friday questions (vaguely related) -

I liked Entourage-the-series, but now that I see ads for the upcoming Entourage-the-movie, I'm apprehensive because a TV show necessarily has a rhythm that just doesn't happen in a movie.

Since a "season" of a TV series on cable can run relatively few episodes, what's the calculus of producing an "Entourage" movie versus a short additional season of "Entourage" for TV?

Second: Kevin Spacey is a producer on "House of Cards". If that were a broadcast TV show or a movie, I have a general sense of the financial upside of being a producer. But for Netflix, do you have any idea about what secondary revenue stream might come from that to a producer (or to an actor or writer, for that matter)?

James said...

A Friday question for you. At any time, there are always certain shows that are the ones writers all want to write for, even if they're not the highest rated at the time. Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, etc. What are the current prestige shows, especially among the newer ones? (Besides 2 Broke Girls?)

James Van Hise said...

Several years ago the Bravo cable channel was showing the NBC David Letterman shows from the 1980s and the energy in them was amazing. And then they abruptly stopped after just a few weeks.