TV Wasteland: Where Pilots Go to Die
What happens to the 70-odd shows that fail to make a prime-time schedule? Despite a $40 million investment per network, not much.
by Warren Cohen

Monday, June 11, 2001

Of all the new comedy pilots it produced for the 2001-02 fall season, Studios USA had the highest hopes for Born in Brooklyn, a single-camera, unsentimental view of family life starring flamboyant fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Designed for ABC, the show didn't make the schedule as one of the network's two new comedies, though it's currently being considered as a mid-season fill. But if it doesn't get that slot, no one will ever get to see Mizrahi's sitcom debut. The tape could end up collecting cobwebs on the shelves of Studios USA's storage facility. 'There's so many variables, and all the stars have to align to get a show on the air,' says Marcy Ross, the senior vice president of comedy programming at Studios USA. 'And when the momentum is over, it's gone.'

Sad but true. In the movie and music industries, the vast majority of finished entertainment ultimately finds an outlet, even if it's the discount bin at Blockbuster. But television's post-pilot season results in video corpses. Every year, the roughly 70 filmed comedies and dramas that don't make it onto a network schedule ultimately die without any kind of burial. The price tag of such failures: roughly $40 million per network, according to a variety of insiders. 'I kind of question the point of doing full pilots sometimes, because even the ones that get on the air sometimes need to be reshot or recast,' says one network executive. 'When you think that we spend millions on some of these pilots, it's disturbing.'

In a world of seemingly infinite cable, satellite and Internet channels, it's surprising that so many broadcast network pilots never find a home in television's minor leagues. And it's rare when studios are able to pitch rejected pilots to another network. Unlike other entertainment products, failed pilots vanish for a variety of reasons specific to the art.

Every year, each network considers almost 500 pitches for new shows from both independent and network-owned studios. The ideas are specifically tailored to each network's perceived sensibilities: shows with young, upscale casts for NBC, hipper and edgier fare for Fox. Through this system, the networks also avoid bidding wars for hot scripts. The ideas are whittled down to 50 or 60 concepts that writers then produce into scripts. After a network peruses the finished screenplays, it commissions 10 to 20 to be filmed as pilots.

A decade ago, networks used to request twice as many productions. But with the rising cost of talent like star writers and actors, and the intense competition that has shaved profits, the networks today have a bigger incentive to make sure the ideas are finely honed before asking for a heap of shows. They pick up roughly 70 percent of the cost of all filmed pilots, with the studios fronting the rest. A comedy pilot can run around $1.5 million, while dramas are usually just over $2 million.

Only a few of the pilots become series on a network schedule -- this year, the six broadcast networks will air only 15 new comedies and 14 new dramas. Networks maintain the rights to the pilots for about a year depending on the deal. So, after the schedule is announced in May, the studios then go into intense lobbying mode to get them on the air as mid-season replacements. If a show is passed over a second time, then it usually ends up in the vaults.

Most executives say the reason for the high failure rate is a disconnect between a sharp script and a lousy execution. 'Not every good idea makes it on screen,' says Roy Rothstein, vice president of national broadcast research at Zenith Media Services and a former executive at ABC. 'It could be the director, the cast or the production values.'

The elements sometimes fail because of the fierce competition for actors and directors in February and March, when the 70-odd shows are being filmed. Studios will often have to settle for second or third choices once their preferred talent is snapped up by another show. 'In February and March, everyone in town is casting and you may not get the best director,' says Ross. 'The rushed timeframe is antithetical to the creative process.'

After the rights for a show revert back to the studio, developers may occasionally make an effort to resell it to another network. One of the most recent examples is NBC's Ed, a show originally created for CBS, which passed on it. NBC re-filmed the pilot with new cast members and elements, giving bowling-alley owner Ed an additional gig as a part-time lawyer. Columbia TriStar recently salvaged a show called Going to California, which was originally designed for the WB but will now air on Showtime. But because most pilots tend to be so network-specific, such rescues are the exception rather than the rule.

There is only a limited time for trying to pitch a rejected pilot as well. That's because the actors and writers move onto other projects with most promise. It's not worth it for the studios to keep the talent on retainer for too long if the show has long odds of getting on the air. 'If it goes beyond July and you haven't been able to shop it to another network,' says Ross, 'then it is a dead project.'

Why can't so many hours of filmed television find a place on the air? In less competitive times for the broadcast networks, they did. For dramas, the networks used to commission two-hour pilots, which could run as standalone summer movies if they didn't make the cut for the fall schedule. But network executives determined that two-hour pilots rarely give a feel for what a series will look like, so they're less useful in evaluating a potential show. Also, a two-hour pilot can add a few hundred thousand dollars to a development budget.

Until last year's Dark Angel, Fox, for instance, hadn't commissioned a two-hour pilot since 1996. Today, the only two-hour efforts are mostly by star film directors and producers, such as James Cameron (Dark Angel), David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) and Steven Spielberg (Semper Fi), whose TV work can often be sold as feature films overseas. Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects, is currently working on a two-hour pilot for Studios USA that would bring back the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica.

But networks find that such standalone movies are also hard to promote. When the big three dominated the airwaves, they could put anything on the air and grab a decent rating. But today, time-slot accidents can seriously bomb. When NBC aired Semper Fi as a two-hour movie in April, it drew only 7.8 million viewers, the third worst Sunday night for NBC all season. 'When there were three networks, you could put on a show and get an audience,' says an executive. 'Now, with the competition, you put on a bad pilot and get a bad 2 rating.'

Half-hour comedies have an even shorter lifespan. They don't fit as a one-time network event, and the scrutiny for passed-over comedies is usually much harsher. Failures are just not considered funny. Even with all the other cable and Internet outlets a network may have at its disposal, it's not worth selling advertising time for a half hour. It's dubious whether people would watch such rejects anyhow. 'You're embarrassed to have people see these,' says Jeff Sagansky, a former top programmer at CBS, and current CEO of Paxson Communications Corp.

Because the pilot process is such a given at networks, it's often hard to evaluate the effectiveness of research and development efforts, in part because few alternative approaches have been tried. Even accounting for the hits that pilot season ultimately produces, is the overall return on invested capital worth it for the networks? Could they be more cost-savvy in streamlining the costs of development? How does television's success ratio compare with that of other entertainment industries?

Sagansky says that as long as there are network hits, it's OK to jettison the misses. 'Just like Campbell doesn't release all the soups that didn't taste good enough, networks are the same way,' he says. Still, it doesn't stop the creative types from mourning abandoned pilots. Says Ross, 'The period after May always breaks your heart.'