Pilot Season Slows Down as Broadcast Networks Rethink Strategy in Streaming Era

Superman and Lois The CW
Courtesy of Shane Harvey/The CW

Now more than ever, the broadcast networks are feeling the need to change up their typical pilot season strategy. 

With existing streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus and Amazon and new competitors like HBO Max and Peacock developing shows year-round, the broadcasters are slowly but surely shifting their plans to include more off-cycle pickups. 

“We’ve been pursuing a strategy we’re calling second cycle rather than off-cycle,” says Simran Sethi, executive VP of development and content strategy for ABC Entertainment. “I think the term ‘off-cycle’ to a lot of people in the creative community has historically felt secondary, so it just becomes a part of regular old pilot season that takes a lot longer. So we’re calling it ‘second cycle’ because we’re considering things in two very distinct timelines — one being the traditional cycle that’s happening now … and in the second cycle we’re holding back some of our volume to shoot in that second window.”

The volume of pilots ordered during the traditional pilot season is once again down significantly from years past. At the time of this publishing, 53 projects were ordered by the five U.S. broadcast networks — 29 dramas and 24 comedies. That includes six straight-to-series orders, multiple series commitments and “The Kenan Show,” which was rolled to the 2020-21 season at NBC.

Fifty-nine projects had been ordered by this time last year, with the number eventually rising to 63. According to multiple sources, the networks are mostly done with their orders for the season, meaning the final number this year will likely be in the low 50s. That would represent a 10%  to 15% drop year over year. Even more staggering, that’s down approximately  40% from the 85 pilots ordered just five years ago. 

Also interesting is that the number of straight-to-series orders doubled from last year, when Fox was responsible for all three of those pickups. This year they’re spread out across the broadcasters. Fox has ordered the animated comedy “Housebroken,” while ABC has tapped the David E. Kelley crime drama “The Big Sky.” NBC has teed up the comedies “Young Rock” and the untitled L.A. mayor project from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and The CW has ordered “Superman & Lois” and a “Walker, Texas Ranger” reboot starring Jared Padalecki. Only CBS has not made a formal series order, though it did hand series commitments to “Clarice” — about “Silence of the Lambs” character Clarice Starling — and an adaptation of “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Fox also shelled out for a series commitment to “Carla,” a multicam laffer based on a U.K. format with Mayim Bialik attached to star and Jim Parsons executive producing. 

According to one studio head who spoke with Variety, the need for more straight-to-series orders and large commitments is in direct response to creatives now regularly doing business with streamers, where such commitments are commonplace. The studio head notes that the broadcasters are stepping up in that regard to remain competitive, and adds that the upcoming crop of streamers has not affected broadcast pilot season, in that studios are not prioritizing streaming projects over broadcast.

Michael Thorn, president of entertainment at Fox Entertainment, says the streamers are having an effect but in a different way. 

“The way we’ve really felt, it was less about the politics of vertical integration and more about the availability of talent because so many things are being ordered,” he says. “With some of the new streaming services aggressively ramping up as they are, when you look at an available directors list or casting, so many people are working filling the need of these new streaming services. There’s a shortage.”

Thorn adds that Fox sees this change as an “opportunity,” however, and has established relationships with partners like Bento Box Entertainment and Gail Berman’s SideCar to help offset the “pipeline shortage.” 

And of course, talk of a potential writers strike has dominated the industry in recent months. Those who spoke with Variety downplayed the impact of a strike on this development season. 

“You have to make every decision knowing there might be a strike, and it would be incredibly unfortunate,” Thorn says. “The way you may see us react to the strike will be how we look at our current series, more than a hurry-up rush to greenlight something that’s not quite ready just in case.”