Web lets dead TV pilots fly again

Shows like 'Gay Robot' finding fans online

With the upfronts now wrapped and the 2007-08 primetime skeds set, producers of dead pilots still have one ray of hope: That their shows will gain traction on the Internet.

The Web-fueled revival is, to be sure, a dream scenario for producers. The Internet carries the possibility of a vast democracy in which an audience flocks to a project after (or even before) a net rejects it, giving producers another weapon in the battle to get their show on the air.

It is also just as surely a network chief’s nightmare, allowing for second-guessing and whining about shows that didn’t make the cut, and unkind comparisons to those that did.

It’s too soon to say whether any of the projects passed on by the nets earlier this month will be resurrected online. (Though if one were making a shortlist, comedies such as NBC U TV’s “Business Class” and “Area 57,” 20th Century Fox’s “The Call” and CBS Par’s “Dash 4 Cash” seem ready-made for Internet buzz and consumption).

But with so many young people migrating from television to the Net, production execs are increasingly opening up to the possibilities of the Web.

“There’s definitely gold in them hills,” says one broadcast net exec. “It’s just a matter of finding the right formula in using online as a testing and development mechanism.”

Cable development has already begun to see the potential of the Web.

“Gay Robot,” a live-action show produced by Sony Pictures Television and Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison shingle, was initially passed on by Comedy Central.

But Sony and Happy Madison then began streaming it online, first offering just select clips and eventually making available the full pilot.

Before long, “Gay Robot” had 32,000 friends on MySpace. That, Sony says, has turned out to be enough to convince Comedy Central to put the project back into development, this time as an animated show. (Comedy Central declined to comment).

“For the right character and the right sensibility, online can be a huge venue,” says Glenn Adilman, senior veep of comedy development for Sony Pictures TV.

The broadcast nets have stopped throwing pilots on the air during the dog days of summer as they once did; a rerun, they realize, can draw more viewers.

But the Web offers another way.

Last year, “Nobody’s Watching,” writer-producer Bill Lawrence’s barbed take on the television industry, popped up online and drew a huge audience, by Internet standards. The former WB pilot garnered a total of 400,000 streams on YouTube, enough to draw a second look from NBC Entertainment topper Kevin Reilly.

NBC wound up putting the show back into development with NBC U TV, with Reilly saying that “if we can actually have something find an audience on the Web, gravitate over to the network, continue with a web presence and have them feed each other, that could end up being a really cool thing,”

After rumors of a six-episode order and a special, though, NBC took a pass.

The spirit of experimentation also marked “The Papdits,” CBS’ pilot from “Borat” writer Ant Hines, which the net released on Innertube last year at the time “Borat” was hitting theaters, months after CBS passed. Execs noted that the Web was the better venue for the mockumentary about a Kashmiri family in the U.S., though the results for the streams were mixed.

Warner Bros. TV had a little more success with the “Aquaman” pilot. After the CW passed on the project, the studio decided to offer the episode as a paid download on iTunes. While the skein never got a second chance at development, the release became one of the site’s top downloads.

The idea of the Web reviving a pilot isn’t exactly new. The pilot with perhaps the most Internet-fueled buzz is the Ben Stiller-directed action spoof “Heat Vision and Jack.” The Fox project was thrust into the spotlight by Webizens way back in 1999 after the net passed on it, even though many people had never seen it.

But that show — which features a talking motorcycle and a then-unknown Jack Black as a superintelligent being — has also been given new life with the rise of viral-video.

More than 600,000 users have viewed the pilot on YouTube since it was posted there last year. The site has so rejuvenated the buzz that co-creator Rob Schrab recently said he’s working on a film script based on the pilot.

Examples like this dangle the hope to producers that online interest can rescue a project, creating essentially a Web 2.0 version of the “Cagney and Lacey” campaign.

Of course, there are practical impediments. Nets often hold on to project rights until the end of the year in case they want to use a show as a midseason replacement. By the time the show has built an online fan base, talent and writers have often moved on.

Also, without the broad exposure that TV offers, shows have little chance of aggregating a large audience.

“There really haven’t been cases where a show with no television platform is saved by the Web,” says Chris Alexander, 20th Century Fox Television’s senior VP of corporate communications. “You do have cancelled shows like ‘Family Guy’ (which came back thanks to DVD sales and reruns on Adult Swim). But that’s very different.”

Finally, with studios in business with nets on so many other shows, a viral campaign can be risky. “It’s a little bit of a slap in the face,” says one television exec. “If (ABC’s) Steve McPherson passes on a project, he doesn’t want to be told it’s selling like crazy on iTunes.”

Still, the issue of how much to pull the veil off the pilot process is a fundamental question, pitting traditional top-down methods against the unruly grassroots character of the Web.

On the one hand, the possibility of fans showing up execs by embracing a dead pilot could create even more anxiety in network offices.

But it’s also tantalizing to imagine that these same fans can help increase both viewership and the development accuracy rate.

“I don’t know why (online testing) isn’t done more often,” says Garrett Donovan, a writer on both “Family Guy” and “Nobody’s Watching.” “Instead of making a decision on a show based on what fourteen people in the Valley think, you can use the Internet, which is a much better simulation of what the ratings will be.”

Donovan says that Web testing cuts down on the feedback loop of focus-grouping, where execs tend to ask questions, and receive answers, that confirm what they already fear. “So much of the data depends on how you ask the question. On the Web you don’t have that,” he says.

If Donovan and others have their way, it may not be long Television Without Pity becomes The Development Process Without Pity.

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