When Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly stood in front of reporters in January and proclaimed the death of pilot season, he drew a good amount of ribbing from the competition.
Reilly was making the case for torching the broadcast primetime model as we know it — starting with the annual tradition of everyone developing everything all at once. It was a grand pronouncement, particularly in an industry that talks big but can rarely turn on a dime. Nonetheless, change is afoot, and Reilly's not the only one flipping the script.
The networks are under attack — from new rivals like Netflix, from a young audience spending more time on mobile devices and from the emergence of more cable channels drawing viewers away. As TV executives head to New York next week to announce their fall schedules — the annual ritual known as the "upfronts" — there's a sense that least they're finally mobilizing to do something about it.
"The networks are getting more aggressive in how they are pursuing talent," says ABC Studios executive vice president Patrick Moran. That means being more flexible by developing shows year-round, scheduling limited-run series, handing commitments to big stars and ordering more cost-effective international co-productions.
Still, the challenges are immense, and executives who are used to being the first stop for series pitches are now frequently fighting to even hear about the latest hot property. While having a hit show on a broadcast network is still a holy grail, writers, producers and stars are growing more enamored of cable and online programmers.
"[Broadcasters] are now the underdogs, as opposed to the other way around in the old days," says Marc Graboff, president of CORE Media Group. "The big disrupter this year has been the way the broadcast networks are really chasing the talent now to keep them on the reservation."
How did it get to this point? A confluence of events made this a truly game-changing year for the networks:
•The buzz around series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black has led to a severe case of Netflix envy. The online network is the hot spot at the moment, and everyone in Hollywood wants to be Cards star Kevin Spacey or Orange creator Jenji Kohan. Amazon Studios has picked up several new projects, including the thriller The After from The X-Files creator Chris Carter, while Yahoo, Xbox and AOL unveiled ambitious programming slates. "I have to tip my hat to Netflix," says Xbox Entertainment Studios president Nancy Tellem. "They validated a new platform. As a result, instead of explaining who we are, people are jumping in and saying, 'We want to be here.'"
•The competition from these new programmers is forcing broadcasters to make unusual deals, such as NBC's play for the Jennifer Lopez detective drama Shades of Blue, which immediately earned a direct-to-series 13-episode order. "It's truly a seller's market for talent," Graboff says. Reilly believes Netflix has lucked out in coming up with good shows, "but at some point they'll go on an epically bad run. Nobody rolls snake eyes forever."
•Kevin Bacon agreed to star in Fox's The Following under the condition there would be only 15 episodes per season. In-demand talent now know "the Kevin Bacon deal" is an option: Greg Kinnear recently pulled off a similar arrangement to star in Fox's canceled Rake.
•As DVR saturation reaches 50 percent of TV homes this season, the ratings lift from non-live viewing is enormous. Last fall, an average of 9.3 million viewers tuned in live to NBC's The Blacklist; after seven days, DVR and VOD usage pushed that number to 17.1 million. "The changes in the way people watch television that have occurred in the past two years are more significant than the changes that occurred in the previous 20 years," CBS chief research officer David Poltrack said late last year at a media conference.
•Viewers are bingeing on TV shows, making it difficult to decide which ones are worth keeping on the air. Networks are insisting on stacking rights (having more than just the five most recent episodes of a series available on-demand) in order to catch viewers up on their shows, but studios don't want to risk losing out on an off-network deal with streaming services — increasingly, the only way for studios to fix their deficits in a depressed syndication climate.
•The ratings success of History's 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys opened up the long-form floodgates. Networks that had abandoned the genre reversed course — and in the blink of an eye, NBC, Fox, CBS and ABC all had limited-run projects in the works. The turnabout happened so quickly that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which had merged the TV movie and miniseries Emmy categories in 2011 due to fewer entrants, separated them once again.
•More new competitors with fat wallets are getting into the scripted business, including cable networks such as Discovery Channel, E!, Bravo and WGN America(which is off to a good start with Salem). "It's amazing how much it's changed in the three years I took off," says former ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson, who departed the network in 2010 and is now back in the TV biz as a producer. "Many more outlets are viable, strong, competitive places doing really great programming."
Reilly says there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the predicament that the networks find themselves in. But as broadcasters continue to lose the advantage they once had over cable, it's been suggested that perhaps they need to start operating more like the little guys. "I grew up in broadcast television, and when I stepped back out and went to cable [at FX], it was like the world opened up," Reilly told TV Guide Magazine in January. "Then I came back to broadcast and was never comfortable back in the system. It was shocking to me that all of these other cable networks were thriving around us and we just kept doing the same play."
It's not as though anyone adores pilot season. "When we're in the middle of making these pilots, we question the insanity of it," says Universal Television executive vice president Bela Bajaria. But while they bemoan the system, network and studio chiefs feel limited in their ability to do anything about it. "Broadcast has a certain level of expectations, of volume, of a fall schedule," Reilly said. "Everyone's organized their years that way. There's just an ingrained habit."
But habits can be broken. And while Reilly perhaps made too bold of an announcement — pilot season isn't going away yet — he had the timing right. "Hopefully this year was a tipping point," Graboff says. "The $150 million a year that each broadcast network spends in development and production and licensing of pilots — for potentially one show that lasts more than one season — those are just ridiculous numbers."
Fox and NBC were particularly aggressive in picking up shows direct-to-series this year. NBC's Wizard of Oz—inspired Emerald City, for example, was ordered early so that an entire season could be written before anything was shot. "They'll have time to really craft where that story goes," Bajaria says. NBC also ordered 13 episodes of Aquarius, starring David Duchovny as an LAPD sergeant tracking a budding cult leader.
Fox ordered six episodes of the ensemble comedy Mulaney, based loosely on star John Mulaney's life, but then went back and picked up 10 more after it liked what it saw. Other series ordered far in advance include Fox's sitcom Last Man on Earth, starring Will Forte; Fox's detective drama Backstrom, with Rainn Wilson; NBC's Mr. Robinson, starring The Office's Craig Robinson as a music teacher; ABC's upstairs/downstairs soap The Club; Fox's sitcom Weird Loners, starring Zachary Knighton and Becki Newton; Fox's ancient-Egypt drama Hieroglyph; and NBC's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt from 30 Rock's Tina Fey and Robert Carlock starring another Office alum, Ellie Kemper.
A wide array of comic book adaptations were also given early nods: Fox's Gotham, an origins tale about eventual police commissioner Jim Gordon, was given a series commitment and immediately considered a lock for air. At The CW, executives were bullish on the Arrow spinoff The Flash, which was almost a sure thing and officially got an order Thursday.
Summer also continues to grow as a home for experimentation: CBS found success by going straight to series last summer with Stephen King's Under the Dome and hopes to do the same this year with the Halle Berry sci-fi thriller Extant. A large chunk of the shows' costs are covered by CBS's immediate off-network deal with Amazon. NBC is premiering a batch of low-budget comedies from international production partners this summer, including Welcome to Sweden, starring Greg Poehler, who executive produces with his sister Amy. International co-productions boast the same quality as homegrown shows, "but the network's cost is less than half of what it would be for a traditional studio-produced, U.S.-only broadcast show," one producer says.
Reilly believes streamlining the development process could also save millions of dollars. The goal, of course, is fewer busted series. "I think we'll have less cost of failure," he says.
Says one producer: "Broadcast has an 85 percent failure rate; cable has an 85 percent success rate." That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but his message is clear: "It's a business. Do the math."