×

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

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.” 

More TV

  • Caroline Flack

    'Love Island' Returns to Air As ITV Defends Treatment of Caroline Flack

    ‘Love Island’ was back on air Monday for the first time since the death of former host Caroline Flack on Feb. 15. Amid the reality series’ return, broadcaster ITV insists it supported the star after she was removed from the show. Monday night’s episode began somberly with narrator Iain Stirling providing voiceover over scenes of [...]

  • Tiffany BooneEntertainment Weekly Pre-SAG Party, Arrivals,

    Actor Tiffany Boone Addresses Her Decision to Quit 'The Chi'

    Actor Tiffany Boone addressed her exit from “The Chi,” the Showtime series she departed in November 2018 after making harassment allegations against her former co-star Jason Mitchell. Mitchell was fired from the show last May as a result of intimidation and abuse accusations made by Boone and showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis. Mitchell was subsequently dismissed [...]

  • Amazon Prime nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for

    Amazon Prime Nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for Germany, France and the Netherlands

    Amazon Prime Video has acquired the first season of series “Russian Affairs” for distribution in Germany, France and the Netherlands, from Russia’s Start Studios. The eight-part drama that follows the lives of Russia’s elite and those who aspire to that position is set in contemporary Moscow. Under the title “Gold Diggers,” the series was broadcast [...]

  • MODEL RELEASED Mother with baby, 1

    Channel 4 Orders ‘Baby Surgeons’ From Wonderhood Studios

    U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 has commissioned Wonderhood Studios for a documentary series with the working title “Baby Surgeons.” The series will explore the journeys parents go through to save their babies during complex pregnancies and will feature cutting-edge baby surgeries, some performed inside the womb. It will also use CGI, MRI and Ultrasound to enhance [...]

  • Bertelsmann CEO Says RTL, ProSiebenSat.1 Should

    Bertelsmann CEO Says RTL, ProSiebenSat.1 Should Be Free to Merge

    The CEO of German media giant Bertelsmann has said its RTL Group TV division should be allowed to merge with German rival ProSiebenSat.1 and called for a loosening of E.U. antitrust regulations in order to better stave off intensifying competition from U.S. streaming giants. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung published on [...]

  • Politicians and Petition Support BBC Following

    Politicians and Petition Support BBC Following Reports of Major Cuts

    A war of words around the future of the BBC continued on Monday amid reports of severe cutbacks to the U.K. public broadcaster. The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that Downing Street, the seat of the U.K. government, was planning to replace the annual BBC license fee with a subscription service; sell most of [...]

  • Stanley Tucci

    Stanley Tucci to Host BBC Radio 4 Series 'The Californian Century'

    Actor and filmmaker Stanley Tucci will front series “The Californian Century,” set to air on BBC Radio 4. Tucci will play a cynical screenwriter who narrates the stories of ten people who helped build California over the last 100 years. They include Francis Boggs, the first person to direct a full movie in California; Hattie [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content