For Series Orders, 13 Is No Longer Lucky Number

TV Networks Cutting Back on Pilot Orders
IAN KELTIE for Variety

Add inventory management to the ever-lengthening list of challenges that broadcast networks are facing this season. In recent weeks, ABC, NBC and Fox have cut back on the number of episodes in initial orders for new series — the TV equivalent of calling an audible that is likely to shake up the order patterns for next season’s development crop.

“The TV season is dynamic and more unpredictable than ever,” Jeff Bader, NBC’s president of program planning, strategy and research, tells Variety. “The episodes that you ordered before the start of the season aren’t necessarily in line with what you need as the season goes on.”

NBC has trimmed episodes from three comedies, two of which haven’t premiered yet (“Truth Be Told” and the upcoming “Hot & Bothered” and “Superstore”), and the struggling drama “The Player.” Fox cut its investment in the flagging “Minority Report” and shaved two episodes from the midseason entry “Lookinglass.” ABC pared down on drama “Blood & Oil” after an underwhelming premiere.

Network execs have cited scheduling crunches as the reason for most of the cuts, rather than lack of faith in the shows. As the nets offer up more programs overall and far fewer repeats in the regular season, juggling the scheduling of so many of them can be tricky. More series worked into the schedule throughout the year means there’s less need for as many episodes of each — unless a show turns out to be a massive hit like “Empire,” of course.

For decades, 13 episodes have been the standard order for new series. But execs now say that has become an arbitrary number that is costly at a time when production and marketing resources need to stretch across more programs than ever before.

Ratings So Slim, Orders Are Trimmed
Same-day Nielsen demo scores resulted in lower episode counts for some rookies
0.6 Minority Report (Fox)
0.7 The Player (NBC)
0.9 Blood & Oil (ABC)

For a new series, six to 10 episodes is sufficient to evaluate performance, creative merits and the all-important social-media buzz factor.

NBC’s Bader adds that the push to shorter episode orders is fueled by the extremely competitive TV landscape and ever-evolving viewing habits.

“Because of the way that people are now watching TV, all of the networks have to put more originals on, not less -— so we have to be very judicious with our budgets to allow us to have as many originals as we can,” he says.

Based on this year’s experience, networks are likely to become more conservative in making episode orders for new shows next season, because eleventh-hour decisions to cut episodes do not come cheaply.

When a network cuts back on an order, a negotiation ensues with the studio to cover the amortization costs that the studio was expecting to allocate to the terminated episodes.

In addition, the network is typically on the hook to cover any talent obligations that the studio had lined up — such as directors or stars with the clout to command a guarantee for 13 episodes up front. In the case of NBC’s “Hot & Bothered,” which dropped to 11 episodes, star Eva Longoria was guaranteed paychecks for all 13.

There’s also a potential ripple effect overseas, as studios generally get higher fees from international buyers for shows that have at least 13 episodes. However, industry sources note this protocol has become more flexible in recent years because of all the cable series that have eight- to 10-episode seasons as the norm.

“Thirteen just isn’t the magic number anymore,” an exec notes. “You can learn in eight or 10 weeks what you need to know.”