Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #678: Take Me To The Pilot

Welcome to the show folks...

And speaking of shows, it's pilot season in Hollywood. Now I'm not talking about the time of year when celebrities and studio execs get pilots for their private jets under their magical airplane trees by Santa. Nope, I'm talking about TV.

You see television channels need to have something to show because static doesn't win audiences, and if you don't have audiences, you can't sell ads, and make money. But how do you pick a show that can win an audience?

TV shows are picked by a caffeinated chimpanzee named Stinky Pete who goes from network to network and throw his feces at various show ideas and wherever the shit stuck would decide the new fall season.

Okay, I kid, but the real system is only about 10% more scientific.

To explain the system we're going to have to use our imaginations.

Imagine that you have an idea for a TV show, one that's a guaranteed hit. But how do you get it on air?

Well, first you need an Executive Producer.

Now there are a couple of different types of Executive Producers, and I'll explain each one as they take their position in process of getting your idea and transforming it into a show.

The first one you need is a Money-Man Executive Producer. This person has the resources either with their own company, or in conjunction with a studio or network based production company to get your show made into a pilot. A script is written, a "bible" outlining the concept and characters of the show, and then those are shopped around to various entities like studios or even networks. If they like the script and the concept they will give the greenlight to a pilot episode.

Then you will need the second type of Executive Producer.

This type of Executive Producer is called the Show-runner. It's the job of the show-runner to supervise the writing, casting, budgeting, and day to day operations of the show. Now two or more people can be show-runners on the same show, with some tending more towards working with the writers (often the show's creator), while others lean more toward handling the business and administrative issues.

Then you can start making your pilot episode.

The purpose of the pilot episode is to sell the network on your idea. This is not an easy process. Studios and networks are crawling with executives all trying to justify their existence by meddling with your pilot. Rewrites will happen, actors will be cast and re-cast, then re-cast again. If you're lucky, you might actually get to shoot your pilot. Then you have to survive the next round of notes calling either for you to re-do it again, or be canned before you're even done filming.

If your pilot is unbelievably brilliant, or you catch the network CEO in the post-priapic glow of a nooner with an easygoing mistress, you can get the green-light to go to series.

However, that's very rare. Thousands of scripts are pitched at this time of year, and a couple of hundred get made into pilots, but only a tiny percentage of those pilots make it to series, and a lot of the ones that make it to series get canceled very quickly.

It's an expensive, wasteful, and extremely frustrating system, but until the day someone figures out something better, it's the only system we've got.


  1. Here's an idea:

    Have pilots posted on the internet (like the studio website). See which ones get watched the most (and shared, and commented on, etc) then you know which has the best chance of succeeding.

    But then, that's kind of revolutionary...

  2. Japan has a very different model. The majority of their television dramas are about 10 episodes long, and air from start to finish no matter how bad the ratings may get. There might be a second season if the ratings are good enough and the show's story allows for it, but "specials" are far more likely. A special is basically a feature-length episode that usually takes place after the show's events, but prequels have been done too. There may be more than one special, and the most successful shows can even spawn theatrical movies (which will inevitably be popular).

    The good thing about this model is that every show is guaranteed to finish properly. No mid-season cancellations or an epic story that was supposed to be five seasons but only made it through one. Or an epic story that should have been only two or three seasons but was (over)extended because the ratings were good. Or an epic story that runs itself into the ground over several seasons until the viewers abandon ship.

    But strangely enough, there is much more variety, experimentation and risk-taking in American television.

  3. Jake Was Here22/2/11 2:51 pm


    The reason shows run like that in Japan is that their setup is significantly different. In many cases, the production isn't done in-house by the network themselves -- instead, the network sells the timeslot to the independent production company, who in turn fund the timeslot and the show's budget by collecting support from advertisers.

    Animated series usually function like this. In the past, a show could get a full season -- 26 episodes, or even more -- to do its entire plot arc. Nowadays, in these tougher economic times, a show frequently runs only 12 or 13 episodes, to keep on the financial safe side... although some of them are plotted with the possibility of a second season in mind, depending on how much success they have in the ratings and the home-video preorders (on sites such as Amazon).