Poor Prognosis for Pilot Season

CBS, Fox, and the CW have all slashed their development slates for the upcoming pilot season, jettisoning dozens of scripts, and ABC is expected to do the same. Now that the writers strike has stretched on into what would ordinarily be pilot season, most of the projects cut probably couldn’t be made at this point anyway. All of the networks are still hanging onto a handful of pilots that can potentially be picked up for next season.

NBC, meanwhile, seems to be looking to eliminate pilot season altogether in the future. In an address to NBC Universal employees by videoconference, chief executive Jeff Zucker said the network was looking to save as much as $50 million a year by reducing its reliance on expensive pilots. Although NBC might still commission “one or two” pilots a season, he said they would no longer do so as a matter of course.

So what does this mean for us, the humble viewers? Fewer and fewer groundbreaking scripted programs like 30 Rock and The Office, and more reality fare like American Gladiators and The Biggest Loser. Thanks, Jeff Zucker. Thanks a lot.

The strategy may prove profitable in the short term, but it bodes ill for the future of network television. Sure, reality programming is cheap to produce, but it has a very short shelf life, doesn’t repeat well, doesn’t hold up to time-shifted viewing and brings in little DVD or merchandising revenue. It’s also a contributing factor in the chronic viewer hemorrhaging the networks have been facing, a problem highlighted by the dip in American Idol‘s audience this season.

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3 thoughts on “Poor Prognosis for Pilot Season

  1. I wouldn’t get too worried about scripted fare just yet. One thing I heard is that the networks are ditching their deals because there is the hope, if the strike ends soon, that A-list showrunners who don’t currently have a series on the air have all been writing pilots during the strike. Once the strike is over, the networks will just be able to buy the pilot scripts from folks with proven track records of successful series without having had to pay them the kind of money those folks get for overall deals.

  2. I’m less worried about this year’s pilot season than I am about Zucker’s decision to avoid the process altogether in future seasons and what that says about his programming priorities for NBC.

  3. Of course, Zucker was the genius who decided that scripted fare wasn’t cost-effective enough for the first hour of primetime, which was probably the first step on the road to the horrific Power of 10-Wife Swap-Deal or No Deal-American Idol-Crowned lineup I faced last night. Thanks, Jeff. Still, I find the “business is bad enough we would have had to upend how we did business in the next couple of years anyway” comments telling.

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