Pilot Season scheduling
Chris Gash

Cable competition, cost pressures and audience changes has networks trying new routes to series green lights

A funny thing happened on the way to pilot season. The timetable for development and production shifted dramatically while nobody was really paying attention.

Kevin Reilly, chairman of Fox Entertainment, brought the shift into sharp relief when he declared triumphantly to a roomful of journalists at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour: “R.I.P. pilot season.”

Several generations of broadcast television execs have tried to do away with the frenetic January-April timetable for greenlighting, casting, shooting and fine-tuning dozens of pilots. The period has long been dictated by the mad dash to the mid-May upfronts, where the Big Four tout their new fall wares to advertisers.

Instead of loudly lamenting a flawed process, execs at Fox and NBC, in particular, got busy breaking the cycle with orders for pilots and straight-to-series greenlights coming well before Thanksgiving.

The movement this year was prodded by a confluence of forces: heightened competition for top projects and creatives from cable; the hunt for cheaper ways to produce series; and the push by the nets to offer original programming on a year-round basis.

Fox has taken the biggest leap, with four series orders and three pilot pickups, most of which were done before Christmas. Plus it has three limited series, “Wayward Pines,” “Gracepoint,” and “24: Live Another Day,” in various stages of production.

Reilly made it clear that Fox was determined to break with tradition by ordering more pilots and “series prototypes” (aka a first episode that remains a work in progress while additional scripts are written) in the coming weeks, but delaying production until the summer or later in order to give creatives time to hone their vision.

In fact, time may be the biggest luxury that broadcast TV stands to gain by loosening the chains of pilot season. Reilly made it clear he’s taking a page from the cable model (one he helped forge in his previous gig at FX) by orchestrating schedules in order to allow for a much longer span between production and premiere. Comedies will in many cases have assembled a staff of writers while the pilot is in the works, in order to get to the best feel for where a show goes after the first episode.

Reilly’s peers at ABC, CBS and NBC had varied reactions to the declarations he made about Fox’s approach. But actions speak louder than words. Each of the majors is feeling its way through new ways of birthing programs, at long last.

No matter how they turn out, many in the TV biz are ready to celebrate with a cigar.

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