Pilot season: TV’s cutthroat hit factory

The stressful season mixes future stars with dashed dreams

Pilot season is a Hollywood staple, taking place from Feburary to May.
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This May, five networks—NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and The CW—will shut down New York City and tout new shows premiering for the 2019-20 TV season at the Television Upfronts. While these announcements are heavily publicized and popular TV trailers rake up millions of views, hordes of shows that almost made it to screen never manage to emerge out of pilot season. 

Dubbed by Vulture as “TV’s Hunger Games,” the infamous pilot season occurs each year from February to May, when broadcast networks commission dozens of prospective shows to vie for spots on their schedules. Executives race to cast marketable talent, scout jaw-dropping locations, and hire the best crews possible—all in competition with other competing networks.

Pilot season got its name because each show ordered will produce its “pilot episode,” which is what airs as the first episode should the series be picked up for a full season. 

While the season’s dates have been stretched year-round by many streaming services, these next few months will prove crucial—and stressful—for talent hoping to work on the next hit show. Since pilot season only films one episode, each TV show must line up commitments for full casts and crew without knowing if their work will extend past a week or two. Actors and crew members often sign standard seven-year contracts before starting work on a new show, though the networks decide if those deals ever extend beyond a single episode.

While condensing the development of hundreds of shows into three or four months may not make sense, the competitive edge of pilot season offers a nice alternative to typical Hollywood practices. Production companies often let movies sit in development stages for years at a time, waiting to find the perfect personnel while catering to various schedules. This strategy can lead to films taking years before reaching audiences. Even Avatar, one of the most successful films in history, went through 15 years of various development stages before seeing the light of day.

The rigid deadlines set by television networks—every show must be ready to sell to advertisers by May—can force creativity and keep the TV-making process from dragging.

Pilot season inevitably produces hits each year. Any show you’ve ever seen on broadcast television, like Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or The Office, started off as a pilot. Since even the first episodes of shows have the potential to become immensely popular, networks take pilots very seriously—especially with their spending.

The average pilot for a one-hour drama costs $3 million, while the average half-hour comedy pilot comes in at $2 million. For the 2019-20 season, the five top broadcast networks currently have 56 shows in development, 34 being dramas and 22 comedies. This means the networks will roughly spend a collective total of $146 million on these potential shows. 

For the 2019-20 season, the five top broadcast networks currently have 56 shows in development...the networks will roughly spend a collective total of $146 million on these potential shows. 

Only about a third of those pilots will ever get an audience and even less will survive past their first season. This money may seem like it’s being thrown down the drain, but potential earnings justify costs. Friends earns its production companies approximately $1 billion dollars every year in syndication fees, even though it went off the air 15 years ago. If any initial pilot payment could lead to similar levels of future profitability, it could be the best investment those companies ever make.

Looking at a list of prospective pilots can also reveal what executives think their viewers are interested in a given year, with various trends and patterns emerging across the different networks’ projects. This year’s pilot list includes various remakes, a heaping dose of procedurals, and three separate shows about cross-timelinelove stories because networks assume all we want to watch is This Is Us—and they’re not wrong.

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