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Straight to Series: The Networks’ Big-Money Bet to Skip Pilots

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, CBS' Under the Dome and NBC's The Michael J. Fox all took off without a warm-up pilot.

For years now, network TV has developed new shows in the same way: Every season, each broadcaster commissions a couple dozen pilots for a few million dollars apiece, then picks between one-third to one-half of them to go to series. But since it got into original programming in 2011, Netflix has streamlined the process, commissioning full first seasons of shows such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black without ever seeing a pilot. It's not the first to skip this once-sacrosanct step: Networks have occasionally agreed to go directly to series in order to land high-profile projects, from the massive 44-episode commitment NBC made to Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories back in 1985 to CBS's more recent pilot-free order of Spielberg's Under the Dome. But this year, what was once a rarity has become far more commonplace. Fox is leading the way, handing out series commitments to more than a half-dozen 2014 projects, including a high-profile comedy from Tina Fey, the fantasy adventure Hieroglyph, and the Batman-inspired Gotham. ABC, CBS and NBC have all also ordered at least one early series sans pilot. "It's become the big thing this season," says Bela Bajaria, head of NBC-owned production studio Universal Television. While both competitive and financial pressures are at the root of the move, some small-screen execs see skipping pilots as a means to a larger end: shaking up the sclerotic system of series development that's been in place at the networks for decades.

That's certainly the rationale of Fox network chief Kevin Reilly, who sounds more like the CEO of an Internet start-up than a broadcast dinosaur when discussing the rationale behind his recent slew of series orders. "I'm trying to set a bomb off," he says calmly, explaining that he's done with the decades-old development schedule, where writers pitch scripts in late summer, pilots are made between January and April, and series get ordered in early May, right before upfronts. "I don't want the one-size-fits-all business anymore, period. It's outdated, and it doesn't work anymore for television," Reilly argues. "These series orders are a way to create a different rhythm in our business." 

There are creative advantages to the no-pilot approach. In the old model, writers design a pilot, and then wait for months to worry about what comes next. When they finally get the green light, they immediately need to staff up a writers room and then spend the season scrambling to churn out scripts that stay just ahead of the production schedule. Reilly says they’re "like Lucy at the chocolate factory, with the conveyor belt going faster and faster, and they can't keep up with it." Skipping a pilot and ordering multiple scripts means both showrunners and execs "can put the pieces together, and the plan for the show together, much earlier," says CBS Television Studios president David Stapf, whose studio co-produces Dome and the upcoming Halle Berry straight-to-series project Extant. "You're ahead of the game." Writers with extra time can discover emerging problems and then go back and retool earlier scripts to preempt them before they’re shot. Universal’s Bajaria says long-range planning was key to the success of her studio's Carlton Cuse–Kerry Ehrin thriller Bates Motel, which was sold to A&E without a pilot: "We had six episodes written before we even started filming." The producers of Gracepoint, Fox’s pilot-free adaptation of BBC America's Broadchurch that's planned for next season, have already cast several of their leads, are working on multiple scripts, and, after a January production start, will likely have multiple episodes filmed by the time Fox unveils the shows to advertisers at its upfront presentation next May.

A major reason networks resisted upfront series commitments in the past was that they were seen as much bigger financial gambles. With a pilot, networks only have to pay for one episode of TV; if it turns out the cast has no chemistry or the idea behind a show doesn't work, they can move on, having spent just a few million dollars. But now there are new ways to counter the financial risk of a series order: for Under the Dome and the upcoming Extant, CBS all but eliminated its monetary risk by working out a deal with Amazon that gave the Internet service early access to the show in exchange for a hefty financial commitment. "The unique [financial] modeling … is what allowed the network and studio to go straight to series," Stapf says. But even where there's no such deal in place, Reilly argues that it's bogus to think of series orders as exponentially riskier than the old pilot process. "Pilots have always been a false sense of security," he says. "We think it's hedging our bet, because it's the least amount [of money] you can commit on [a project]. And yet it's been massively inefficient with a really bad batting average." (As mentioned above, networks typically green-light between one-third to one-half of pilots to series.) "It's led us to shotgunning things on the air and – massive failure," Reilly adds. "Is [going straight to series] possibly going to be any worse than what we're doing now? I don't think so. In the long term, it's actually going to be more efficient.” 

Reilly's logic echoes that of Netflix programming chief Ted Sarandos, who so far has opted against making any pilots. Earlier this year, he told Vulture that jumping straight to series represents "much lower risk" than "playing the odds game, where we make twenty pilots and make two [series] and one sticks. That's a good business? I don't think it is. I'd much rather end up with twenty hours of programming that people can watch." He also argued that stepping up with a big commitment to a project would help Netflix attract better ideas: "By going straight to series, the people who have a great story to tell will bring it to us first." Industry insiders concede that Netflix has indeed become a key player in the competition for high-profile projects. And with some other newer cable players making big upfront series orders – WGN America, Starz – networks have had to up their game to stay competitive. "It has a boomerang effect on the talent, writers and actors," one veteran network suit says. An executive from the studio side concurs: "What you're hearing a lot of this season is, 'If we go to Netflix, we'll get ten episodes,'" the exec says. "You hear it on almost every single pitch. Agents and managers – they're all using it." (Not that the argument is always effective: "Netflix can only do so many shows," the studio exec laughs.)

Fox's Reilly doesn't give Netflix quite as much credit for the move as some execs do, and he correctly notes that he started handing out series orders (Terra Nova) long before Netflix got in the game. And yet, he admits the Internet programmer is helping change the rules. "I'm not following those guys, but they are giving me an assist," he says. The straight-to-series model "is more out there, and it's beginning to get everyone out of lockstep. And when there's success, it really helps." So far, the track record for no-pilot projects is mixed. Under the Dome was one of the year's biggest hits, and Bates Motel also did well and will be back for a second season. Netflix doesn't say how many people watch its shows, but it has ordered second seasons of every one of the series it's developed. On the other hand, the aforementioned Terra Nova was an expensive, modest-ratings performer that was canceled after one season. Over at NBC, network chief Robert Greenblatt's decision to hand Michael J. Fox a 22-episode series sight unseen did nothing but give the Peacock yet another low-rated Thursday comedy.

Those failures, plus concerns about upfront costs, help explain why straight-to-series orders are still the exception, and not the rule. Some executives also believe that many creators benefit from the old process, since it lets them essentially produce a first draft of an idea. "You can learn a lot from pilots," says Bajaria, who believes that series orders are "quite a ways away from displacing pilot season." One new player on the scene is actually doubling down on the idea of pilots: Amazon's Prime Video service puts first episodes of its shows online and solicits viewer feedback before deciding whether to move forward with them. Some broadcast network execs, including Reilly, are also increasingly turning to so-called "off cycle" pilots, a middle ground between the old system and straight-to-series orders: A pilot is still made, but — as cable networks have done for years — it's developed and green-lit whenever it's ready, not when the traditional TV calendar says it's time to do so. Off-cycle pilots offer some of the same production advantages as an early series order (they can be cast outside the frenzy of pilot season, writers have more time to work on scripts) without forcing the network to make as much of an upfront financial investment. Even though he's handed out more series commitments than any other exec, Reilly is fond of off-cycle pilots, too, and says he's not wedded to any one particular way of forcing change. "If there's a pilot to be ordered out of cycle, great. If there's a series order that needs to be done, great," he says. "It's all part of a puzzle." What's most important, the Fox chief argues, is that networks insist on radical changes to the development cycle. Otherwise, "The system [will] suck everything right back to the same old way of doing things."

Photo: Shutterstock, Netflix, CBS, NBC