Thursday, 13 November 2008

Allow Me To Explain- Take Me To The Pilot

Everybody, for good or ill, watches television, but very few people know about the process of how the shows they watch, both beloved and benighted, actually get on the air.

Now some of you have read my little explanation of what producers do, and the difference between Executive Producers, and regular Producers. It's a little different in television, because in television there are
two types of Executive Producers.

You see the first kind of TV Executive Producer is what I call the "money" producer. They put together initial package for the show, which involves getting a production company or studio to finance the making of a pilot, and makes the sale to a network.

The second kind of TV Executive Producer is also called a "show-runner." It's their job to handle the hiring, firing of staff and cast, picking of scripts, day to day operations and relations with the network.

Okay, now that I have that all clear, we can move onto The Pilot.

And I'm not talking about the guy who operates airplanes, I'm talking about show-biz here.

In TV lingo a pilot is basically a test episode. Where the characters, premise, and overall feel of a show is presented. The pilot is financed by the production company/studio via the deal organized by the "money" Executive Producer and is quite a risky venture on their part, because over 90% of pilots fail to clinch a series, and can cost millions of dollars to make. If they don't sell the pilot, the financiers are out of pocket and unlikely to make it back unless it's made in some sort of stand-alone format like a TV movie that might at least be aired, or released on DVD.

TV drama and comedy, is a very writer dominated business. Most show-runners are writers or former writers, and the other producers, who handle a lot of the many tasks needed in running a major TV show, are usually also writers, their rank of producer or associate producer, showing their rank on the writing food chain, with either the show runner, or another producer acting as head writer.

Pilots that get made into a successful series have hit the jackpot. The network usually pays for all the production costs, as well as staff & cast salaries, and keep all the profits from the initial airing, and first round of repeats. The producers, cast, and studio make their real money when the show enters syndication heaven. Syndication is where a show that has enough episodes to fill a healthy daily rerun schedule gets sold to air on local and cable stations, sometimes in perpetuity. The studio and producers keep all the money they make from syndication.

Now in the age of media mergers with the lines between studios and networks blurring, the networks try to get a piece of that sweet syndication cash. Some networks are showing preferences to picking pilots produced by studios related to them, and then, if they survive, selling those shows (under market value) to rerun on cable networks they own. Some networks, since they're also acting as the studio, are passing on making the pilots entirely, and commissioning whole series from just a pitch.

This "keep it in the family" attitude has had created more problems than it solved, with networks unsuccessfully rehashing old shows, and ripping off low-rent reality shows, and leaving many actors, writers, and producers cheesed off and unwilling to bring their "A Game" to these networks because the rewards are so little. So the old system, in some form or another, will probably return as soon as the architects of the current boondoggle are ousted.

And that's how television is made.

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