In Praise of Pilot Season


The rise of Netflix and its fellow streaming services have changed the way the world watches television, but the question of how it has affected methods of commissioning television has gone largely unanswered.

The traditional way in which a show makes it first to American screens, then to ours, is through pilot season. In late summer, the major networks (including ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) receive hundreds of pitches from writers and producers for new shows. The networks then request scripts from their selection and finally order typically around twenty pilot episodes.

Essentially, the pilot season process means that if a show is picked up to season then it has succeeded in impressing both networks executives and test audiences, usually after undergoing significant changes and compromises, it theoretically has a chance at success.

Unfortunately, the arguably poor number of new shows that get renewed for a second season indicates that the laborious pilot system severely lacks efficiency. A weak marketing campaign, for instance, can just doom a show to obscurity, regardless of its critical merit.

Netflix and others like it, conform to no such system. Instead of getting a sample and doling it out bit by bit, they buy the whole product before the audience has seen a single episode. Theoretically this is an improvement on pilot season; it is considerably less expensive and could allow show runners to potentially see their vision through without having to compromise to the same extent. Furthermore, on the creative front, it means that seasons can have greater coherence since they are no longer beholden to the whims of changing episode orders.

This approach is necessitated on streaming sites due to their signature policy of releasing all episodes simultaneously. Tweaking the formula just isn’t an option for the producers of their shows, something which has inherent drawbacks.

These drawbacks don’t affect the ratings of the shows, rather the quality. On network television, a poorly written show will be derided by critics after the first few episodes and audiences will usually desert it over the weeks. On Netflix however, the poorly written show has only to engage its audience long enough for them to wait that 15 seconds at the end of the episode before the next one begins. This is how truly awful original programming from them sees itself repeatedly renewed, series on series.

I know, in general Netflix has managed a high batting average. ‘Orange Is The New Black’ has been extremely well received critically, ‘House of Cards’ did decently and the ‘Arrested Development’ resurrection did fairly impressively considering the enormous burden of expectation upon it. The problem is that ‘Hemlock Grove’ received similar popularity to these shows, is now entering its third season and remains alternately boring and terrible.

The pilot process ensures that while bad television still gets made, it is at least made with a degree of competence. A show can’t make it through all those stages of preparation and make no sense.

It can be misguided, offensive or lacking in originality but generally speaking it cannot contain lines of dialogue like the gem of ‘Hemlock Grove’s’ second season: “That woman is what she says she is like a Mexican hates fireworks.”

And yet people watch it because on Netflix’s system a show doesn’t need to be exceptional to keep its viewers coming back; it just needs to be there. Obviously the ratio of Netflix’s great shows to poor ones still shows a commitment to quality, and no inclination to rest on its laurels.

It is interesting to wonder, however, how this method of commissioning television might impact writing and producing in the long run.


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