While using Twitter to troll for writing ideas – I mean crowdsourcing – someone suggested I do a little write-up explaining why some pilots get picked up while others don’t (to series, that is – I am not even going to tackle the pilot pick-up in the script stage). First of all, as a measly studio development assistant, I probably only have a very limited understanding of this. Add to that any “cred” I bring as a TV blogger (do I say writer? That makes me sound like I write TV, which, sure I do, but not in any professional capacity just yet) as well as my previous experience as a “trend forecaster” (where my job literally was to predict what shows were going to be hits, even though I was right maybe only 50% of the time, if that), then okay, sure, maybe I’ve got enough background to give me some sort of authority to speak on the matter, but before we get into this I feel I must emphasize that these are my thoughts/opinions and mine alone.
Okay now that I vomited out that paragraph with all the inarticulate wording I can muster, let’s move on to the interesting part of this, where I will ponder why some pilots are picked up and others are not, (and as I so love to do, in list form!):
What Makes Some Pilots More “Pick-up-able” --
Thank you, by the way, to my Twitter follower "augustbenassi" for both the post request and for using "pick-up-able" in a sentence.
1. I have no idea. Really I don’t. I spent the weekend watching a lot of the pilots that were picked up and I have seen a handful of those that weren’t. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why one and not the other after a first viewing. I will use the rest of this list to make a few guesses as to why, but keep this very important point in mind. I will come back to it.
2. Quality. Shocker right? Sometimes a pilot will get picked up over another one because it is better. Simple. That may not always seem like the case, but I do think that there is a degree to which all creative executives, even the ones at the network, ultimately care about quality programming. For example, I recently watched the ABC pilot “Freshmen” which has all the makings of a great show – Sarah Chalke (Scrubs) stars, some big name producers are attached (Greg Malins and HuffPo’s very own Ariana Huffington), and the setting seems like something Americans would love (three freshmen Congress members living together in an apartment in DC! Hijinks ensue!) – however, the pilot was not very good. ABC did not pick up the pilot to series, which was a great decision – especially after seeing the much higher quality of some of the other shows the network picked up, like No Ordinary Family or My Generation (both already on my fall watch-list).
3. Auspices. Sometimes all it takes is a high-brow writer/producer/director/actor to give the pilot the momentum it needs for the pick-up. Think anything J.J. Abrams has put his name on. Interestingly enough, this year I can immediately think of two pilots with big names behind them that were not picked up – Ben Stiller’s “The Station” and “Pleading Guilty” from Chernin Entertainment and high-brow auspices such as director Jon Avnet and Executive Producer Hart Hanson, not to mention John Laroquette (NIGHT COURT!). Yet neither of these were picked up (interestingly, both were at Fox). Okay, so maybe I’ve already canceled out this point in citing two shows that were not picked-up despite auspices (and already I am remembering more), but for certain networks the auspices behind the show play a very big role. And while this mindset is perhaps starting to shift, I will again say: think J.J. Abrams.
4. Network branding. In case you weren’t aware, the networks all have a specific “brand” or “image.” You can very often watch a show or read a script and think, oh “character-driven legal drama feels perfect for ABC,” or, “if this show had more of a procedural bent perhaps CBS would be interested.” If a show feels like it is on-brand, yet brings something fresh then its chances of a series pick-up increase. Of course, there are always the random shows that seem out of place with a network’s brand. In my opinion, Nikita seems like an odd fit for The CW (it’s actually good – and it’s not all about surly teenagers having sex and doing drugs and shopping and becoming vampires), and would perhaps be better suited for ABC or Fox. Speaking of, I’ve heard from many that while Lone Star has a great pilot and all the makings of a great show, Fox maybe isn’t the best home for the series. And don’t even get me started on NBC because I am pretty sure they don’t even know what their brand is right now.
5. Money-making potential. Duh. I mean, this is a no-brainer. Every pilot has the possibility to be a network’s next CSI, or Grey’s Anatomy, or any other show that’s been a roaring success, spawning spin-offs, DVD sales, and sweet syndication deals (syndication is the real money maker in this biz, keep that in mind as you find yourself four hours deep into that Law & Order marathon on TNT). These pilots are all tested, researched and discussed so that when making decisions, the network execs have all the info they need to choose a show that has the potential to be their next cash-cow – which also means finding shows that ad buyers like (hence why upfronts are so important).
So there you have it, five reasons as to why I think some pilots get picked up while others do not. Yes, "I don't know" is a reason. See, before I leave you with this less-than-clarifying list, think again about my first point. Because honestly, it’s a crapshoot. Sure there are formulas to follow, but you truly never know. It’s kind of like getting into college. Just kind of. Because instead of spending the next four years surrounded by other like-minded individuals who want to both work and party hard with the occasional one-night stand or political debate thrown in, once your show gets picked-up it’s a whole new ballgame, with writers to hire and stories to break and people to please… and it all sounds exhausting actually. But don't worry there are parties in TV land too. You just won't be invited. Unless that pilot gets picked up. Or you know someone who knows someone. Or something. I wouldn't know.