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Time to Ground Pilot Season

February 3, 2011

There is a strong case to be made for keeping the traditional television pipeline in place, at least for a while longer.  (I will be making that case soon).  However, the traditional pilot season seems to have outlived it’s usefulness.  Once, it was the ideal system for attracting audience attention to new wares, the way an Auto Row draws new buyers to a single location in order to consider a range of possibilities.  Now pilot season more often adds to the premature demise of programs that might have thrived if they hadn’t been suffocated in the crowd.  Given the lengthy and often expensive process of getting a pilot made, it seems short-sighted not to give new consideration to the manner in which they are introduced to prospective viewers.

The destructiveness of the traditional pilot season model was more evident than ever in 2010.  Granted, at first glance there wasn’t an obvious break-out hit like Glee or Modern Family.  But several series were removed from the air so quickly, it was hard to tell what potential they had.  A perfect example is Lone Star, a heavily promoted, enthusiastically reviewed drama on FOX.  It had a complex premise about a conman leading two lives.  It was obvious from the log line alone that it was going to take several weeks to introduce the key players and lay appropriate groundwork.  Instead, FOX pulled the show after two outings.  What a waste after taking the various leaps of faith required to get Lone Star from a dog-eared script in a pile, to a funded pilot and finally to a highlight on their fall schedule. It was not that the rating took a nosedive.  That would have made FOX’s move more understandable.  Rather, not many viewers had checked it out at all. Would they have once the program had become more than an amorphous shape?   Would they have once fans of cast members Jon Voight, Andie MacDowell and others had found it?   Would they have once word of mouth had had a chance to build?  And would they have if this layered and unconventional show has been launched away from 20 other options?

As an alternative to emphasizing the fall season, the tactic employed by many basic cable stations has several advantages.  Series’ launches are sprinkled throughout the year away from the September/October hoopla.  Each series is divided into two half seasons with several months in between. From a production standpoint, this prevents total burnout, which results in far fewer “filler” stories and more consistent production value.  From a programming standpoint, each successful series can be strategically paired with a promising newcomer likely to please the same audience.  And from a consumer standpoint, viewers can focus their attention on a few fresh faces and a handful of favorites rather than drowning in choice.

While not exactly comparing apples and oranges, I am certainly comparing apples and apple sauce.   I understand that networks like USA and TNT have fewer hours to fill with original programming. I also acknowledge that this cyclical approach works better with programs that are essentially episodic like White Collar and The Closer.   There is some movement in a new direction; for example ABC is launching Off the Map, Mr. Sunshine, Body of Proof and Happy Endings over a four month period.  Whether this method is too defused remains to be seen.  Generally the networks could do more to remove the glare and noise from pilot season.  Remember, Glee made its debut in untraditional May.

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