Broadcast Nets Striking Out With Pilot-Free Series

Partly by choice and partly by necessity because the WGA strike cut short the pilot season, this year was supposed to be the dawn of a new era for series development. NBC skipped pilots, going straight to series, while CBS opted for shorter, less expensive drama presentations.

“Pilots are vastly overrated,” CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves declared last spring.

Said NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker in January, “The odds of success are just as great going straight to series as they are in making all of those pilots.”

Less than a year later, few are talking about overhauling the pilot format. Most networks have taken further steps toward year-round development: In July, Fox said it would screen pilots in December and May, and ABC said it would break up the development cycle into three mini-pilot seasons. But after getting a lot of bad rap for their exorbitant costs and failure to realistically represent what the potential series might be, pilots seem to be making a quiet comeback.

Pilot-free series have fared poorly this fall: NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy and Crusoe crashed. Kath & Kim has modest ratings and is being retooled. Several more direct-to-series shows — NBC’s Kings and The Philanthropist, ABC’s In the Motherhood and The Goode Family and Fox’s Dollhouse — are on tap for midseason. Two of them — the Joss Whedon/Eliza Dushku thriller Dollhouse and the globe-trotting adventure Philanthropist — have undergone extensive revamps, with Dollhouse getting a time slot downgrade to low-rated Friday night.

“The lesson learned from the last year is that going straight to series is a tool to be used, but not the only tool to be used,” NBC co-chair Marc Graboff said. “There’s no blanket rule that covers every situation.”

Graboff said that having Enemy take a fall slot right away saved NBC the cost of shooting several pilots to contend for its position.

Without a pilot, the usual retooling and polishing process during and immediately after the pilot season often gets pushed further down the production timeline.

“Enemy” did have time to receive a creative overhaul between the first and second episode to fix issues with its “pilot,” yet the revamp did not change the show’s fate.

One could argue that if NBC shot more pilots, Enemy might not have been on the schedule in the first place. But Graboff said the network “made all the pilots we wanted to make.”

Still, following the shaky fall launches, NBC is shifting from a “no pilots” policy to deciding on a project’s development route on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, CBS ordered nine drama pilots this past season, six of them presentations. Only one of the presentations, the horror tale Harper’s Island, landed a series order for midseason, while all three full-blown pilots — Mentalist, Eleventh Hour and The Ex List — made it to the fall schedule. Mentalist has become a breakout hit, while Hour also is expected to receive an order for additional episodes.

NBC’s strategy has been to get advertisers in on the ground floor of new shows, both creatively and financially. GM vehicles were featured prominently in Enemy; in Kings, it was insurer Liberty Mutual’s idea that sparked the show itself, and they’ve been heavily involved with the production.

And then there’s the other immutable law of TV production: Some shows just don’t work.

“Who’s to say that with My Own Worst Enemy, they could have shot a pilot and came up with the same decision?” said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at New York-based Horizon Media.