Imagine a world in which the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball all decided to move their seasons to the same time of year. It would be chaos, for fans and the professional sports business alike. And yet, in television, that's essentially what happens during pilot season.
The broadcast networks traditionally order pilots during the first few months of the year. From there, it's a race to find the best actors, hire a crew, build sets and produce a show before May, when the upcoming fall schedules are announced. The field has always been crowded, but this spring, several cable networks and online retailer-turned-programmer Amazon are also developing new shows that they hope will go to series (cable networks typically produce pilots throughout the year, usually avoiding the spring).
The result: a run on talent like never before, as more than 100 pilots all scout for A-list stars and directors at the exact same time. And as more production moves outside of Hollywood, in some cities there are only so many experienced crewmembers to go around.
"I think it is an unusually difficult pilot season for everybody," says 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden. "There are just so many different companies who are producing pilots at the same time against each other. The net result is, we're all scrambling."
Among the marquee names who signed on for cable or digital series rather than broadcast shows: John Goodman, who's starring in Amazon's comedy pilot Alpha House; Kyle Chandler in Showtime's The Vatican; Amanda Peet in the HBO comedy Togetherness; and Alicia Silverstone in Lifetime's human resources drama HR. As for directors, FX landed Oscar winner Ang Lee to shoot the drama Tyrant.
Even Discovery Channel, which is casting its first scripted project, the miniseries Klondike, scored big names out of the gate, including Tim Roth. Dolores Gavin, Discovery's executive vice president of development and production, says Klondike had to shoot in the summer, giving the network little choice but to enter the pilot season crunch.
"We got to the point where we said, 'We're going to hold hands and jump into this," she says. "Ultimately you have competition every day of the week, and so you fight with the army you have." Gavin credits the Klondike script and its producing auspices (Ridley Scott's production company) for landing top talent. "We had some people coming forward that were surprising. We would think, boy, these people must really be chased to do this pilot or that pilot. The fact that they would come to Discovery and Klondike, well, holy smokes, that's huge."
AMC's Joel Stillerman, executive vice president of original programming, was also hesitant to jump into the broadcast network pilot season, but AMC now wants to pick up new shows twice a year, so he had no choice. "We went there cautiously, because we all know what the downside is," he says.
But Stillerman has been pleasantly surprised with the actors he has been able to land on AMC's two drama pilots, Turn and Halt & Catch Fire. "The fact that we're even in the mix during pilot season has given us access to some actors that I don't think we would have normally been able to talk to," Stillerman says. Halt's Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies), for example, "conceivably would have ended up on network pilots" had AMC not been casting at the same time. Stillerman says agents have been a bit more aggressive this season, "and you have to be a little more resistant to that stuff," but that ultimately "we've ended up where we would have ended up normally. People understand the economics of what we do."
The casting crunch left some pilots in the lurch: Bravo's The Joneses, USA's Horizon and NBC's Donor Party were among the projects pushed when their casting efforts came up short. And perhaps the flurry of castings meant some stars were snatched up even though they weren't quite right for a project. That may be why big names like Mandy Moore (ABC's Pulling) and Christina Ricci (NBC's Girlfriend in a Coma) wound up leaving their shows, in some cases after table reads.
"There will always be a point in pilot season where we'll see an actor and go, 'Well, that was OK, but we can do better, but in two weeks we're going to really want that person so we should hire them," one exec says. "But that's never the way you should cast."
Stillerman says he wasn't surprised that Amazon decided to jump feet first into pilot season. "They probably sat down and looked at what their best opportunity was," he says. "It's a time when the most talent is available, and there is clearly a shift in terms of how actors are looking at material. They probably felt like they could compete. We'll see what the outcome is."
Will this year's pilot-palooza finally advance efforts at the networks to upend the traditional pilot season process? Walden says she's optimistic: "I'm hopeful the networks will look at the success that their cable competitors are experiencing and change this process a little bit."
But as much as network execs say they'd like to get out of the practice of competing head-to-head for the same stars, the industry seems set in its ways. "Until [No. 1 network] CBS does it, no one's going to do it," says one insider. "And they're not going to do it. This works for them and they're winning."
Meanwhile, despite the competition, the broadcast networks fared better than you might expect this year. As more major stars look to come to TV, the networks landed big names like Robin Williams in CBS' David E. Kelley comedy and Greg Kinnear in Fox's drama Rake. And even some cable stars are returning to broadcast, like Margo Martindale (Justified, The Americans), who's starring opposite Will Arnett in CBS' Greg Garcia pilot.
Stillerman says not to read too much into cable verse broadcast, however, as both have their pros and cons. "There will be people more drawn to cable-type material or the schedule, but if you're talking about earning a living as an actor, the choice between 22 episodes on a broadcast network show or a (shorter) order on cable, that can be a disadvantage for us. It's a pretty fair fight, and material wins things over."
CBS' talent and casting executive vice president Peter Golden says he does find it challenging to compete against cable networks offering stars the opportunity to shoot fewer episodes per season than broadcast shows. "That makes it hugely competitive to get certain actors," he says. "But when the material is great, actors and their representatives go for it. That's what we rely on, and, happily, that's why we're feeling pretty good about our roster this year."