A scene from the new series <i> The Wedding Bells.</i>
PASADENA, Calif. - It's pilot season in Hollywood as network executives cross their fingers and say a prayer that the first episodes of proposed new series - the "pilot" - turn out well. Many of these shows begin filming this month, but networks actually began developing these pilots last year.
Almost immediately after the networks announce their fall schedules in May, the pilot process starts all over again.
"All the smart and good agents say, 'All your stuff [stinks], we have to sell you new shows because most of your shows will fail,' and most of them do," said Ted Harbert, former ABC Entertainment president who now is president and CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group, which includes the cable networks E! Entertainment Television, Style, and G4.
The process of bringing a writer's idea for a series to life is more art than science, explained Laverne McKinnon, who left CBS as senior vice president of drama development last fall. She said the most successful projects come from a writer's passionate vision rather than a crass desire to simply fill a network's need for programming.
Craig Erwich, executive vice president of programming at Fox, said the pilot process begins when writers (with agents in tow) pitch series ideas to network executives between July and October. If an exec likes a pitch, he or she orders a script.
Between November and January, executives read up to 70 prospective comedy scripts and 70 prospective drama scripts that they've commissioned and decide on which seven to 12 scripts to film in each genre. Casting occurs between January and March, when production begins.
Pilots are completed and edited in April and early May, and the networks announce their fall schedules in mid-May after screening all the completed pilots. (Between four and eight programs, a mix of comedies and dramas, usually get picked up as series by each broadcast network.)
"The pilot is a creative template for what the series will be and a test to figure out what's working and what's not working," McKinnon said. "Because the creative process is fluid, it changes what the original vision for the script may be. It can be heavily impacted by what a director or an actor brings to the project. It changes slightly and then you have to figure out where on the schedule it's going to fit."
E!'s Harbert is particularly critical of the pilot process, saying, "Pilot season is so stupid, it's now stupid to keep calling it stupid."
Actually, Harbert said the whole cycle - pilot season leading into May upfronts, leading into fall premieres - is the larger issue, with the upfronts the biggest speed bump. Held in May in great halls in New York, networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers and lock in ad rates "up front" for the upcoming TV season. Every network heralds its announcement with great fanfare, spending thousands of dollars to fly in stars who then get their pictures taken with media buyers at after-parties.
"Think of the money that could be saved, all the shrimp that wouldn't have to be caught to feed all the advertisers," Harbert said. "I don't think any scheduler would say this whole September launch thing is working in a fragmented universe with young people paying so little attention to network schedules of any kind."
The practice of the pilot-season-upfront-fall-premiere cycle dates back to the early 1960s, when networks took over production of TV series from advertisers following the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. The networks started selling ad time rather than advertisers producing single-sponsor shows. Unless things change again - always possible in the current, fast-changing media environment - it's the cycle the industry is stuck with.
To some degree, it's a comfortable place to be.
Harbert said network executives don't like to evaluate scripts on their own merits; they prefer to compare them to other scripts, which all arrive on their desks at the same time under the current system. "This way you can say, 'I don't know if this is a good one, but it's better than what I read last night.'"
But it's not necessarily the networks that encourage writers to rip off the last big hit in hopes of creating the next big hit, which happened last fall as networks premiered an abundance of serialized shows that failed to catch on.
"The networks put out a certain message in terms of what they're looking for, but the writers are at home watching TV and they get inspired," Erwich said. "They watch Lost, they watch 24, and they say, 'That's great work; I aspire to do something like that,' and then we're awash in shows of that spirit."
This fall, NBC wants to balance serials with more close-ended shows. ABC is looking for lighter, more upbeat shows in the spirit of its successful Ugly Betty.
CBS, on the other hand, has had plenty of success in recent years; now it wants respect.
"We wanted to find shows that are going to be talked about," CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said in January, before mentioning pilots about wife-swapping, a demon hunter and a singing casino proprietor.
Finding actors to fill these roles is another challenge because every project is competing at the same time of year for actors and directors. If it's difficult for networks, it's nerve-wracking for actors who sometimes may go on three pilot auditions around Los Angeles in one day - a feat in travel given the notoriously bad L.A. traffic, not to mention the acting challenge.
"It is absolutely horrible, awful and dreadful," said actor Sean Maguire (The Class). "It can be soul-destroying because sometimes you end up doing a (bad) job on all three and you end up thinking, 'I should have just concentrated on one and focused on that.'"
Director David Semel, who helmed the pilot of Heroes last year, said a pilot is "a huge sales tool," and everyone knows episodes that follow will be made on a smaller budget and won't be as ambitious.
From the network perspective, who will be the "show runner" is an important consideration a network takes into account before ordering a series. If the writer-producer who came up with the idea for the show has experience overseeing all aspects of series production, he or she will often fill that role. A person who doesn't have prior experience will be paired with someone who does.
"The show runner is CEO of a multimillion-dollar production company, in essence," McKinnon said. "The show runner is so critical because they need to be the eye of the storm. They're responsible for responding to audience feedback and what's happening on a daily basis. They need to be able to guide this gigantic ship and change course."
Once a show makes it to a network schedule, the toughest work is just beginning.
"The first season of any TV show, you're developing and learning what's working and what's not, so you need to make adjustments," McKinnon said. "I remember from the first season of Grey's Anatomy, it felt like the medical stories had more emphasis, but no one was really interested in that, so now it's all about the characters and the soap-opera quality, which people really love.
"But they had to learn that."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is TV editor of the Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: rowenpost-gazette.com.