Friday, 12 March 2010

Pilot Season

There are about 10 weeks of the year that stand out, even from the other incomprehensible 42 in Los Angeles. They coincide with the awards season, though they don't exactly connect, and they are interrupted by the Sundance Film Festival, though they rarely benefit from the break. From January to March, the television industry embarks on the phenomenon that is Pilot Season and it is all hands on deck.

For a while, during the Writer's Guild Strike and the threatened SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) strike of 2007 and 2008, it looked like Pilot Season might be in jeopardy. Necessity had intervened and given birth to the dawn of a new era. Henceforth, there would be fewer pilots, more commissioned series and less testing generally. TV executives would be bolder, take more chances, it would be cheaper in the short term and maybe more original material would emerge from the labour. The experiment lasted one season. It was a disaster.

So, just when many thought the savage delights of Pilot Season would be no more, it has sharpened its claws and returned with sleeker budgets and a gimlet-eyed determination. It works like this:

1. All the networks and cable stations that produce their own scripted television series, whether it is half-hour comedies, one-hour dramas or something in-between (see Nurse Jackie), commission hundreds of pilots to be filmed.

2. The world's actors audition for the pilots. They get the scripted material, learn it, go to meet the casting director. They might get a recall where they go and see the producers and writers. Occasionally, someone has thought to employ a director and the actors might meet them as well, though no-one takes much notice of what the director thinks. In the land of television, the one eyed man is king and directors famously have more vision than sense.
Well known actors ignore this stage and go straight to 3.
Extremely well known actors go straight to 4.

3. Once three possible choices for each part are confirmed, the final auditions take place (see Network, Going To).

4. With everybody safely signed up for the next seven years, the pilot is shot. The contract is only limited to seven years because that is the law in California. If it were not, actors would simply be indentured. It is somewhat surprising that no network attorney has thought to utilize the various and more lenient employment laws of the states in which the pilots are actually filmed to implement this process.
It used to be the case that the pilot was a somewhat deluxe version of the possible show, especially with drama series. The budget would be bigger and the pilot would sometimes be released as a video film in its own right. This now only really applies to sci-fi, whose audience is infinitely patient and patently insatiable.

5. The pilots are watched by the studios and networks. 90% of them are shelved. The rest are 'picked-up' for a series of 13 or 26. Actors go shopping. Writers are chained to desks.

6. The 'brand new series' air in the autumn schedule and the viewing figures come in. Some shows are axed straight away, some hobble on for a season. Around half a dozen are a success. One of them wins awards.

7. The mid-season pick-ups are commissioned and filmed. They are chosen from the also-ran lists of the pilots that did not make it through the first round. A couple of them will continue to another series.

8. It's January, executives have come and gone, those who survived make New Year's Resolutions. If Darwin were pursuing his studies today, he might not trouble himself with Galapagos; Studio City would suffice.

9. Pilot Season starts again.

American drama series are consistently among the most well written, polished and emulated television programmes in the world. They have to be.