Skimping on pilots doesn't save in long run

To use a recent bit of political vernacular, TV execs spent much of the writers strike and its aftermath putting lipstick on a pig — insisting the economic hardship would help wean them off an expensive pilot process and force them to pursue series development in a smarter, cheaper way.

Yet with the new TV season about to commence amid chaos and uncertainty, it’s increasingly looking like most of the hoped-for savings created by producing fewer completed pilots will be squandered (and then some, perhaps) re-shooting, tinkering with and micro-managing initial episodes of new programs.

Producers are privately and sometimes not-so-privately complaining about expanded network and studio interference and bean counting about restraining costs. Meanwhile, an inordinate number of new series have yet to reach critics, as execs and creative staffs scramble to meet fast-approaching airdates.

Memories tend to be short, but every new TV season is messy and produces gossip about shows being “in trouble,” so the proof remains in the viewing; still, the fact that many series appear so unsettled at this late stage suggests the strike’s repercussions will be felt well into the upcoming season — with another hitless or near-hitless year among scripted programs threatening to cost both studios and the talent guilds dearly.

Should that happen, a lingering question will echo another theme in the current presidential campaign — namely, are the networks (or voters) truly committed to change, or will a few conspicuous setbacks send them rapidly retreating to old ways of doing things?

ABC Entertainment prez Steve McPherson, for one, has reaffirmed faith in pilots as necessary R&D. By contrast, in what sounded like brave talk at the time, during the strike NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker advocated that execs go with their guts and order concepts directly to series instead of squandering money on costly prototypes that “never see the light of day.”

There’s nothing wrong with challenging conventional wisdom (although a network with a show titled “My Own Worst Enemy” should be cautious to avoid self-inflicted wounds), but nobody should confuse failing more inexpensively with success.

Hope springs eternal, and a pilot-free strategy still might work. But if the season ends up being the washout some preliminary indicators suggest, start getting that pig ready for its close-up.

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Speaking of waste — and forgive the impersonal nature of this plea to networks great and small — please, everybody, stop including useless promotional swag with the DVDs you send to the press.

Let’s face it, the economy sucks.

Beyond that, who needs T-shirts and caps for shows that aren’t going to survive past Thanksgiving? Cute promotional toys don’t hold much allure either (though that way-cool light-saber from Cartoon Network might get a workout), and cookies aren’t a couch potato’s best friend.

To upstart networks in particular: Knock it off. It looks like you’re trying too hard.

Consider this practically. Presumably the goal is to generate goodwill toward the shows, and not just send swag that ends up at Goodwill.

Seriously, though, does anybody believe a “The Starter Wife” makeup case and shoe-shaped cookies will inspire critics to like the show better, or that decorative lotion dispensers improved our predispositions toward “Do Not Disturb,” Fox’s new sitcom? (Go back and read the latter’s reviews on Metacritic; I’ll wait.)

Of course, in olden days things were more collegial and money flowed freely. Fox once handed out garment bags with trinkets in every pocket. The piece de resistance: a “Models Inc.” instamatic camera. Ah, good times.

Today, half the so-called press you’re trying to stroke work for websites nobody’s heard of, or pledge allegiance to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

Admittedly, not all my brethren share this attitude. I’ve seen journalists grasp at gift bags the way squirrels attack a bag of walnuts. Then again, given the disheartening attrition rate among critics, storing up for the winter probably isn’t such a bad idea.

That said, in hard times, extravagance isn’t attractive, and producers of useless novelty items shouldn’t be the one and only business thriving in Hollywood.

So thanks all the same, but I’ll provide my own T-shirts. Putting on better shows, however, would be a gift that keeps on giving.

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