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.


  1. Oo-ooh I got a rocket…

    A Dark Adapted Eye? It was the going-away outfit that did for me.

    Oo-ooh you're going on it…


    Oo-ooh you're never coming back…

    Can’t get that song out of my head. Need more tea.

  2. Thank you for your blog on the Pilot Season. I was listening to Sheila Hancock being interviewed on the radio this lunchtime and she described the whole audition process for actors. The prospect of rejection on that scale sounded terrifying. I would imagine that, by nature, actors have to be incredibly aware of their feelings and not bury them too deeply, but Ms Hancock said that young actors have to toughen-up pretty quickly if they don’t want to get crushed by the system. Heavens. How do you do it?
    For those of us with desk jobs (dull and anonymous as they are), we know what we will be doing - pretty much - from month to month and can make plans. How do actors plan their lives if they don’t know which jobs they’ll land?
    My friend’s brother is an actor and landed a really good role in a film a few years ago. He got all the star treatment – own trailer, chauffer, name in brackets on the DVD case etc – but when the filming ended, he was back to developing holiday snaps in the back of a grubby shop somewhere in London. I'm not sure I could cope with that adjustment... good job I'm not an actor, then!

  3. You ask if there's anything wrong with this process, the entire process and yes, there is plenty wrong with it. It's not a Democratic process for one. It's a uber-corporatistic view of how everything runs in America. Forget creative license; and, the audience has no real part in the decision-making whether a series renews its contract or not. The audience is tube-fed. I myself have seen plenty of good, provocative series go by the wayside because of the "one-eyed god" as you so aptly put it, said, "off with their heads!" And why? Because the series wasn't drawing in enough ratings. What is one of the biggest ratings giant, "Nielsen Ratings?" But even bigger than the Nielsen Ratings, which is tantamount to putting all your faith into elections and polls, (and we Americans here, some of us that is, know a little bit about skewing the numbers), are the dollars that get poured into the media; e.g., "faux news" aka Fox News is funded by ultra right-wing conservative hypocrites. But enough about greed.

    Writers, actors, audiences are a part and parcel of the delivery system that lines the pockets of executives. What I fail to understand is why more writers and actors, (without whom the entire house of cards would fall) don't take a firmer stand and make more demands as they deserve, rather than compete against themselves.

    Hell yes, go on strike. When the writers went on strike a few years back, the studios thought they'd bring in "temporary" writers. It was laughable: "It was the worst of times and the best of times" - I could actually get some things done with all my free time. Some of the most incontinent series came out of that debacle.

    Right now, I'm watching "Bones" with Emily Deschanel, even though the bloody show airs on Fox, it's still a smart show, very engaging and the character development is stellar. I give credit to the writers and actors for its success.

  4. Yes, rejection would be a good subject for a post, wouldn't it? You're absolutely right, Lazy Writer, there is a tension between self-protection (the toughening up that Sheila Hancock refers to) and the vulnerability that an actor needs to maintain to be able to do a good job.

    As for the autocracy of television, a free market economy is part of a democracy. Hence James Murdoch's assertion that the BBC is an anomaly in modern Britain and that only economic factors should influence news content. I couldn't disagree more, but then democracy is the voluminous canopy under which both libertarians and socialists shelter. Uneasy bedfellows, which returns us neatly to Fox and Bones. The tolerance of the Murdoch empire for such liberal fare (as with The Simpsons) at least proves that James is as good as his word; if it's making money, it's working.

  5. Ah, easy numbers on the poll say the comments should still be moderated, that is, not unmoderated. I can only think y'all must have been traumatised by another blog. Happy Spring Break! Eat loads of chocolate and go the movies.

  6. y'all??

    Are you sure you're not American?

  7. "As for the autocracy of television, a free market economy is part of a democracy."

    Maybe I'm using "democratic process" in the wrong context. I'm out of my depth here: Economics and Poli-Sci are NOT my strong suits. Any impassioned view is in danger of being solipsistic, so proceed with caution:

    My main contention with an autocracy is the huge disparity in the distribution of power and resources to the wealthiest. This happens because, 1) "Free market" is associated with "healthy" competition; 2) Ideally, the government does not intervene nor regulate the economy (when it should, such as antitrust laws to break up monopolies: Otherwise you have companies that become too big to fail and an unstable global economy); 3) Exchange of goods and services is a mutual agreement between seller and buyer. Right! Anyone ever hear of Loss leaders, deceptive practices, outsourcing, non-existent customer service? Again I refer to my comment above: "the audience is tube-fed" - they think there is a choice, but what is choice between the lesser of two evils? I defer to Erich Fromm's, "Escape from Freedom."

    The idea that Democracy is based upon "The principles of social equality and respect for the *individual within a community" is hysterically delusional. I don't propose to know what a good economic modal is, but I happen to respect Japan's economic approach maybe a tad better than the US. And maybe because, the highest paid person makes 44 times the salary of the lowest paid worker, while in America, the highest paid person makes something like 2,000 times more than the lowest paid worker. That's obscene! It's what allows an executive to own seven houses, umpteen cars, vacations..etc. while the laborer is lucky to pay his rent and support his family. And still no medical insurance. Let me think, where does the "social equality and respect for the individual within a community/company" come in? What is the individual worth in this kind of modal? Equal opportunity is a euphemism.

    "If it's making money, it's working." Yes, at the expense of freddom; yes, if money is all that matters; and yes if you can define "what is working."

  8. I should know better than to try and propose an argument with which I disagree. Thanks for your thoughtful elucidation, anonymous. I raise a cup of Fairtrade chocolate to freedom and an alternative economy.

  9. Oi Sophie!Gostei muito da sua publicação. Profissionalmente estou
    completamente desligada do mundo das artes em geral. E o seu blog é
    uma oportunidade para aprender. Obrigada.
    Hi Sophie! I really enjoyed the publication. Professionally I am
    completely disconnected from the art world in general. And your blog is
    an opportunity to learn. Thank you

  10. Sophie!
    I managed to catch your episode of Holby on iPlayer last night. I had a diary clash last week as I had made an appointment to get mi roots done. My hairdresser is always insistent that I listen to her holiday plans - at length :o/ so I missed all your dialogue.
    Anyway, to cut a long story short (I wish my hairdresser would) I downloaded last week's episode onto my trusty laptop and my cat and I were able to watch it in peace.
    For the record, you looked absolutely bloody lovely in your summer dress...
    Back to business: now you're Chair of the Byrne Foundation, it would be highly entertaining for the British viewing public if you were to clash regularly with Connie Beauchamp. Any plans, at all?
    Ooh, before I forget, I was having coffee with my good friend, Mark, this lunchtime and it turns out that he's the Godfather of Holby's wardrobe mistress' daughter...

  11. Sophie
    Just popping in to say 'hello'. I hope you're having a relaxing weekend. x

  12. Here I am, drinking a cup of tea and eating a ginger biscuit to help my mood as I write my resignation letter. However, I have become momentarily distracted by John Lewis’ new TV advert and I have had to weep into my sleeve. Hormones or age? I dunno, soft lass.
    Anyway, as I am already distracted, I would like to take the opportunity to tell you of my unfortunate withdrawal symptoms due to the lack of activity on Sophie So Far; I’ve developed a twitch and my squint’s come back...