Is Fox Really Killing the TV Pilot?

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 13 2014 5:56 PM

Is Fox Really Killing the TV Pilot?

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Kevin Reilly at a Golden Globe Awards party with Andy Samberg, a winner for his performance on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images

“RIP Pilot Season 1986-2013” read one of the slides in Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly’s brief presentation before he took questions from ravenous reporters at the Television Critics Association gathering in Pasadena, Calif., this morning. Nevertheless, the rumors of the death of the pilot are slightly exaggerated.

The important word in Reilly’s slide is season. What Fox intends to “bypass” is the “insane” system in which all the TV networks green-light scripts, produce pilots, and decide which ones will be made into series during the same few weeks of spring. “The broadcasting development and scheduling system was built for a different era," he said. In today’s hypercompetitive environment—when, let’s recall, broadcast shows are also battling DVR backlogs, streaming services, and an ever-growing range of cable competitors—networks are saddling themselves with an unnecessary handicap that their cable rivals, which have “much more freedom in terms of timing and scheduling” are not subject to. “Honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment,” he said.

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By hopping off the pilot season conveyor belt, Fox believes it can give new shows time for the “course correction and further cooking” that every project requires in its first year. Starting in 2013, Fox has been ordering series throughout the year, and it currently has 10 projects at some stage of production. Reilly ran through those 10 projects with the speed of an executive being chased by a business disruption, but in that flurry of familiar names (Tina Fey, Ben Affleck, a show about Batman’s boyhood) and stages of the development process (“ordered to pilot,” “scripts in motion,” “anticipated pickup”), the message Reilly wanted the assembled journalists to take away was that Fox knows the current system is unsustainable.

Part of that unsustainability has to do with the networks’ increasing realization that procedurals are the only hour-long dramas that can reliably hook viewers for 22 or 24 episodes per year. Also dooming the old standard season length: the knowledge that networks lose viewers when shows are interrupted, midseason, by sporting events, reruns, and holiday hiatuses. Those interruptions are inevitable if you try to match 24 episodes with a 36-week season. Fox is clearly embracing shorter seasons: Considers its 12-episode 24 reboot; or Gracepoint, the 10-episode American remake of Broadchurch; or the 13-episode-per-season hit Sleepy Hollow. And so they need to have new shows ready to slot into the schedule when another show ends its run. The model of all shows running September through June just doesn’t work anymore.

Fox doesn’t schedule the 10 o’clock hour, and so has fewer hours to fill than the other big broadcast networks. That it is nonetheless the first network to acknowledge this shift suggests it won’t be the last. Killing the pilot season—or, at least, severely injuring it—allows Fox to give shows more time to work out creative challenges, and, Reilly said, it gives the network more “marketing flexibility.”

As always, though, announcements like this have an ancillary purpose. Traditionally, being designated as a “midseason show”—as happened to the military comedy Enlisted, which premiered on Fox last Friday to glowing reviews and disappointing ratings—has been considered a blow to a show’s chances of long-term success. If the network really was behind it, the thinking went, the show would’ve gotten a spot on the network’s fall schedule. Reilly and his fellow executives are clearly trying to change that impression.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.