PILOT PROGRAMS

During the first four months of the year, U.S. television studios and production companies (and increasingly in similar organizations in other national contexts) immerse themselves in the annual rite of spring known as "pilot season." The television pilot program, a sample episode of a television show, acts as a model for new programming which may be chosen by networks for the following fall's schedule. Pilot season is a frenetic, competitive time in Hollywood; prominent producers, reputable writers, and experienced directors design and showcase their wares for network executives, with each "player" hoping for the next hit series.

Pilots are expensive to produce, and shows which are not purchased by a network have no value. Since the new season is planned using pilots, and the entire offering of a network is usually in place by mid-May, the careful selection of pilots is crucial for designing a competitive line-up of shows. Shows made as pilots during this period are frequently the culmination of long-term preparation, sometimes spanning years. A pilot concept deemed unacceptable by network executives in one year may be suitable as tastes and mores change. Writers and producers may also design potential shows based on the popularity of programming from a previous season--the final fall 1995-96 season contained several programs which resemble the 1994-95 sleeper hit, Friends (NBC), for example. Youth-oriented, nighttime soaps such as Melrose Place (FOX; 1992) and Central Park West (CBS; 1995) trace their lineage to the unexpected popularity of Beverly Hills 90210 (FOX; 1990). Another source for pilot concepts comes from cycles of popular genres in motion pictures or television. In some cases, networks derive pilots by developing "spin-offs," which use characters or guest stars from extant shows to establish a new program.

The process begins when a writer or producer "pitches" an idea to the networks. Pitching may occur year-round, but the most likely time occurs in autumn, shortly after the fall season premieres. By then, network executives have already begun to consider the success or failure of new programming, and have charted trends in topics, types of characters, and other information pertinent to development. If a pitched concept is given a "green light," the network will commission a script, to be written by the series' creator or by a well-known writer. After reading the completed script, the interested network offers extensive notes on changes as well as positive elements. Few scripts are commissioned, and fewer still lead to the production of a pilot--estimates suggest that out of 300 pitches, approximately 50 scripts are commissioned, and of those, only 6 to 10 lead to the production of a pilot.

Because pilots may take months or years to develop, casting becomes a primary concern during the actual pilot-making process. The first quarter of the year is often the busiest, most lucrative time for actors, agents, producers and casting directors. Networks like projects that come with a known star attached, and are willing to pay a studio more if a potential program contains an actor with a following or name recognition. A pilot that is also a star vehicle generates more publicity: the press increases its commentary and gossip about the star or show; fans of the star already exist, thereby building a core audience for the show's debut; and the presence of a star gives a show an advantage over competition in similar genres or opposing time slots.

Network executives are aware, however, that known stars often fail to carry shows. A 1990s trend involves the casting of performers, especially stand-up comedians. Unknown to most viewers, but with solid track records in clubs or other venues, such actors cost less initially, but have enhanced potential for becoming successes. Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, and Tim Allen illustrate the intelligence in this strategy.

The choice of leading players also influences later casting of supporting actors. Appealing, marketable pilots may sell based on the "chemistry" between the star and members of the supporting cast. In the case of situation comedies (sitcoms), such interplay is often a deciding factor in choosing one pilot over another.

Producers spend a disproportionate amount of money on pilots relative to series' episodes. In the early 1990s, the average cost for a half-hour pilot ranged from $500,000 to $700,000, and hour-long pilot programs cost as much as $2 million if a show had extensive effects. If a show is not contracted, "picked up," by a network, producers or studios are not reimbursed for costs.

A mid-1990s trend, designed to cut costs, is the production of shorter presentation tapes, called "demos." Instead of making a standard-length, 22-minute sitcom using new sets, original music, and complete titles, producers create a partial episode, 15 minutes in length. The presentation tape provides a sample of the show's premise, writing, and cast. Studios rely on pre-existing sets, furniture, and props from other shows; titling and new music are limited. If a network buys the series, some presentation tapes can be expanded to episode format by adding music, titles, and new footage. If not contracted, the presentation format helps offset costs. Comparable techniques are used in preparing hour-long presentation tapes.

Producers screen finished pilots for network representatives; if the show receives favorable opinions, it will be shown to a test audience, which comments on its qualities. Based on screenings and other criteria, a network decides whether to purchase the series intact, or change cast, location, premise, or other elements. Another decision involves purchase and scheduling; executives must decide whether to contract for "one bite" or "two bites." A "one bite" show gets a tryout during the fall schedule; if a show is being contemplated for "two bites," its producers know that it may be chosen in the fall, or as midseason replacement programming. Once decisions are made, networks place orders for a number of episodes. Traditionally, at least 13 or as many as 23 episodes were ordered for production; recent changes have led to as few as 7. For actors, "pickup" means a contractual commitment of five to seven years; if the show is not picked up after three years, the actor is not paid for the remainder of the contract. Such contracts safeguard a producer's interests: the actor is available for an extended run of the series, increasing the likelihood that at least 100 episodes will be made--the minimum number usually needed for domestic syndication.

The addition of new networks, cable stations, and premium channels is altering the process of pilot production and sales, by creating more outlets for programs--even some rejected by other networks. A record 42 new series appeared in U.S. primetime during the 1995 fall season, in part because of the previous year's addition of the United Paramount Network and the Warner Brothers Network. These joined relative newcomer FOX as a venue for new pilots and subsequent programming. During the pilot-producing season for the 1996-97 schedule, 6 networks commissioned over 150 pilots for potential new shows.

While pilots and presentation tapes remain essential in the process of program development, new regulations and strategies may eliminate the concept of a pilot-producing season. HBO has initiated new programs in June, and more channels are in development for series and movies all year long. It is now clear that as the marketing and distribution strategies and capabilities of entertainment television continue to shift and change, so, too, will the process by which programs come to be created and viewed.

-K.C. D'Alessandro

FURTHER READING

Carter, Bill. "Networks Tuning Out Pilots as a Way to Develop Shows." The New York Times, 20 January 1992.

Paisner, Daniel. Horizontal Hold: The Making and Breaking of a Network Television Pilot. New York: Carol, 1992.

Robins, J. Max. "Pilot Poker is Now for High Rollers Only." Variety (Los Angeles), 4 April 1994.

Terrace, Vincent. Fifty Years of Television: A Guide to Series and Pilots. New York: Cornwall, 1991.

Vest, David. "Prime-time Pilots: A Content Analysis of Changes in Gender Representation." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1992.

 

See also Programming