Every year Hollywood touts the next big thing and regales us with tantalizing teases — it is called the television “pilot” season. Beginning in January and continuing into early May, we hear some of the biggest names in the business being cast in upcoming television shows. There is the flush of excitement and rush to broadcast every juicy tid-bit of who will be co-starring and how much money was spent on each of the shows. Yet there is a dark-side to the glossy glamour being painted across the industry news pages — many, if not nearly all of these hotly anticipated shows will never air.
Pilot season is merely a testing ground to see if any of the pitched ideas are worthy of spending obscene amounts of money so that the show can air on broadcast television. It is like inviting a hundred beautiful girls to a debutante ball, parading them through dress shops, dressing them up to the gills in ribbons and lace and then one by one determining if any are worthy of going to the ball. In the end, perhaps half-a-dozen are chosen.
Dozens of television shows are green-lit for a pilot episode. It is the way the studios assess whether a show may be worthy of a partial season order — typically 13 episodes, only to see if they weather strongly enough in the Fall season ratings to get their coveted back-nine pick-up order.
So pilots are a dime-a-dozen. Every year there are so many to choose from. If you are a follower of the trade magazines, newspapers or internet blogs, then you are being spoon-fed each and every moment of the agonizing season. The Hollywood hype-machine is in over-drive. They are whipping their anticipated audience into a frenzy, and hopefully getting enough momentum behind each show so that if it receives the golden ticket (a 13-episode order to series), an established audience will be awaiting their show.
This year is no different. We are hearing nearly daily casting of tantalizing actors and actresses. The news of Adrianne Palicki scoring the coveted role of Diana Prince in David E. Kelley’s relaunch of WONDER WOMAN sent an electrifying shockwave through the internet sites. Equally as titillating was the news that Minka Kelly, Rachael Taylor and Annie Ilonzeh had been cast in ABC’s remake of CHARLIE’S ANGELS.
While FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS fans are now frothing at the bit to see both those series, if those names were not enough to get you glued to your television next fall, here are a few more to entice you: Kiefer Sutherland in Tim Kring’s TOUCH, Sarah Michelle Gellar in CBS’ RINGER, Leelee Sobieski in Robert DeNiro’s ROOKIES, Alan Tudyk in ABC’s SUBURGATORY, Maria Bello in PRIME SUSPECT, Minnie Driver in HAIL MARY, Michael Emerson in J.J. Abram’s PERSON OF INTEREST, Ethan Hawke in Fox’s EXIT STRATEGY, Ashley Judd in MISSING, James Wolk in GEORGETOWN, Christina Ricci in PAN AM, Greg Grunberg in BIG MIKE, Jamie Bamber in Ronald D. Moore’s 17TH PRECINCT, Claire Danes in HOMELAND, Kristen Bell in HOUSE OF LIES, Wentworth Miller in IDENTITY, Henry Ian Cusak in IN CRISIS, Eric McCormack in PERCEPTION, Debra Messing in SMASH, James Marsters in THREE INCHES, Brian Austin Green in THE WEDDING BAND, and Andie McDowell in WHAT WOULD JANE DO. These are just a handful of the celebrities and big names associated with television pilots currently in production. Casting is still underway and you will undoubtedly hear many more recognizable names in the weeks and months to come.
But these are all a masterful illusion. All these cool sounding shows will most likely never get a chance to be seen by the average television viewer. The culling process comes in April and May as studio executives review the rough pilots and determine which will be ordered to series and are worthy of being showcased at the May upfronts in New York. That is where each network will parade their best and brightest pilot episodes for advertisers in hopes to spark interest.
So getting attached to pilot television shows now is a bit premature. As cool as the new WONDER WOMAN series may sound, you may never get the chance to see it. It is only if the studio likes the pilot and orders it to series that you may get a glimpse of it — and even then, it could be sidelined waiting for an available timeslot.
That is the second nasty-prong: there must be available time on the primetime broadcast schedule in order to air the new series — and to make space for the new shows, which current shows are you willing to sacrifice?
So May is a brutal time of year. It is the time when new shows find out if they will get a chance to live beyond a single pilot episode, and current shows find out if their “bubble” has burst and they are canceled.
For each new show you are excited about remember this: you will have to sacrifice one of your current shows to make space. I can vividly recall last year’s pilot season when I was excited about shows like EDGAR FLOATS which starred Tom Cavanagh and Alicia Witt, MATADORS with Jason Behr and David Stratham, NOMADS starring Scott Porter, and REX IS NOT YOUR LAWYER with David Tennant. All were shows with fun casting and a cool sounding premise. Yet, they never made it beyond the pilot season. They are shows we will never see.
So I caution you as you read all the latest and greatest casting news and hype about television shows ordered to pilot — do not fall in love with them. They have not yet been invited to the ball, they are only trying on dresses in hopes that they get the invitation to the ball. Television production is fickle, elusive and ruthless. Not every show gets a chance to find an audience. A nameless, faceless executive somewhere decides of all the pilots their studio has made, which will likely secure the biggest and most lucrative audience. That does not mean the best shows get selected, it only means the shows that have the best shot at delivering a profit-making audience. Shows that are likely to appeal to a niche audience (e.g., PUSHING DAISIES) may be passed over in favor of something more generically appealing (e.g., BLUE BLOODS). As viewers, we tend to forget that television is a business and whatever is more appealing to the masses is more likely to be given a chance.
This is why comedies, police and medical procedurals tend to have a higher chance at getting a series — they tend to secure a larger audience easily. They are more of a “sure thing.”
So as you read about NBC’s new series GRIMM or Fox’s 17TH PRECINCT remember this: shows like HEROES, FLASHFORWARD and THE CAPE did not really pull in viewers for the long-haul. The new shows may be perfectly cast, brilliant written, have the coolest showrunners and yet still may not get an order to series. Why? Because they will have a harder time securing a large enough audience to make them profitable and lucrative for their network.
And the moral of this tragic tale is: don’t get too attached to television pilots — they may just break your heart.
(NOTE: For more information on the current 2011 television pilots, check out Rueben’s Ramblings coverage)
Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).