Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Hollywood Babble On & On #513: Take Me To The Pilot

Welcome to the show folks...

I got a question off of Twitter today:
@thierryattard Well, I would like to know your thoughts about the pilot season and the Upfronts. Thanks in advance.
Well, I can't offer judgment on specific shows, because reports of the quality of specific pilots are suspicious at least with people deliberately building up and tearing down these shows. What I can do is explain how the system works and what to look for, and beware of, when looking at pilots.

In the beginning....

There are networks, but without shows to put on these networks that attract viewers to see the commercials that make money for them, they are a void.

So the network CEO tells his executives to go forth and find programming for the network. Which creates another problem: How will they find shows that will attract viewers?

Well, they need to see a pilot.

Not a guy that operates an airplane. In the magical land of television a pilot is a prototype episode of a show. It introduces the characters, the premise, and a taste of what the writing and acting will be like.

These pilots are made by studios and production companies, and are made by the dozens, if not hundreds, every year. These companies literally take a gamble on this, because more than 80% of pilots fail to make it to air, and of those that make it to air, even fewer survive as a series for any length of time.

So why do they take this gamble?

Because when you win, the winnings are huge.

When you sell a show to a network, they pay you a "license fee" that covers the financing of the show, and salaries of the staff. In exchange, the network usually keeps all of the ad revenue generated by these shows. The studio/production companies that make the shows get to keep the revenues made from reruns, foreign sales rights, and now sales of DVD box sets. So if you get a show that accumulates enough audience and episodes to make it worthwhile to rerun, sell overseas, and shill DVDs, you can get really, really rich.

But that's if you make it past pilot season.

Pilot season is the time of year, basically the last six months, where producers cast and film their pilot episodes. It's a brutal time of year, because producers can stand lose a couple of million bucks on an unsold pilot, and it's rough for actors too. Sure it's a time when people are getting hired, but it's also a time when you can get fired on a whim, and ride an emotional roller-coaster where you can come close, but no cigar to, if not TV success, a regular paycheck.

Once a pilot is written, cast, shot, it is often rewritten, re-cast, and re-shot all according to the whimsy of network executives who look at them and offer notes of wisdom like: "This science-fiction show needs a sass-talking gay robot." Even though the show in question is a domestic drama about family life in the 1930s.

These sorts of things happen because no one really knows what will become a hit show. For a long time the conventional wisdom that everything had to imitate CSI. Basically lots of forensic gore, story-lines dripping with sex and violence, and flashy FX heavy cinematography. Then along came The Mentalist, a positively quaint and old fashioned mystery show that has more in common with Agatha Christie than Jerry Bruckheimer. It immediately shot to the Top 10 and stayed there.

It shouldn't have hit it so big. It had no sex, very little violence, and plots that didn't deal with a different sexual fetish every week. So there is no way of knowing what will hit. It's all guesswork, and guess work by idiots, all with their own personal agendas, is even worse.

Anyway, the shows that survive these devastating tsunamis of executive whimsy, are deemed worthy of a space on the network schedule. Then come the "Upfronts."

The Upfronts are basically live shows put on by the networks to impress the media outlets that cover TV. Here they announce who has come back, what new shows are joining the ranks, and hope to get the kind of coverage that present these new shows as worthy of an audience's time and trouble.

Now that I've explained the system, I will tell you what to beware when it comes to a TV pilot:

1. The Too Good Pilot: Every once in a while you will see a TV Pilot that blows your mind. It is so wonderfully entertaining, you think you've seen TV finally achieve perfection. This is a bad sign. It usually means that the people behind the show have blown their load on the first episode, and are then unlikely to keep that sort of quality going. What's actually better, in my opinion, is a pilot that's not perfect, but shows great potential for improvement. Because if a show can't top the pilot, it's not going to be worth your time.

2. The Limited Premise Pilot: When watching a pilot you have to ask yourself, could this premise go for a minimum seven seasons and at least 150 episodes. Could it become repetitive, or confusing, or does it look like some forethought was put into it? If the answer is no, then move on. Basically my model for the limited premise was the 90s era Spielberg show SeaQuest DSV. A spaceship, like the Enterprise or the Tardis, has unlimited potential, a submarine, extremely limited potential. You can only find Atlantis so many times. A more recent example was NBC's Kings, which was a little too obvious in its source material, basically blowing the ending by the midpoint of the pilot. Which is a shame, because I love alternate history stuff.

3. The Annoying Pilot: If a pilot seems like its trying to hard to be trendy and hip, then it's not going to work as a series. TV needs effort put into characters and stories, not catchphrases and trend watching. That sort of show is designed to sell to executives, not audiences.

Well, I hope this post has helped you understand the un-understandable.

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