Has Pilot Season Fallen?

Has Pilot Season Fallen?

Back in 2014, Kevin Reilly from Fox declared the death of pilot ‘season,’ telling the TCA he was going to focus on ordering series straight to production instead of a pilot.

Pilot Season, in 2021, feels like a strange, archaic method of picking the best shows based on one, maybe two episodes, and building a schedule around it. And the fact that there are multiple types of pilots was always something a little confusing to most laymen. Put pilots, backdoor pilots, traditional, unintentional, and unsold pilots … Now we’re adding in series orders? What does all this mean?

Series Orders vs Pilots

Pilots are ‘Test Pilots.’ Folks come up with a general idea for a series, they get a commitment to make a single episode, that episode is tested with viewers internationally, and then they get a pickup or not. There was a time when it was a simple go or no-go, but some series’ get ‘6 episode commitments’ and the networks will air all 6. That doesn’t actually mean all episodes will air, but they get paid for the ones they make.

Contrary to that, a series order, AKA a ‘straight-to-series’ order, is what we see on streaming networks. They get the brief for a series, they take it, they film a whole series and throw it up for consuming. One whole season, but who knows if you’ll get another.

There are obvious risks to both. With streaming, you don’t have to worry as much if no one watches the latter episodes. Data storage is relatively cheap (moreso than bandwidth in a lot of places), and you can just pay for what people actually watch. Related to that is why shows are moving between streaming and linear these days. Take Clarice for example. That’s likely to be moved to Paramount+ streaming because it’s less expensive to air. The people watching paid for the streamer already, they’re a locked in cost.

Conversely, linear airtime needs commercials to afford to air, and marketers don’t like to pay for ad-slots on underperforming shows. It’s a money thing, and that’s fair. If you’re paying for air-time and no one’s watching, you’re losing. This is why buy-in from marketers became a thing, and how we ended up with upfronts and hell week. Or hell day.

Hell Day/Week

Every year the five linear (broadcast) networks have upfronts. Back in 1962, ABC had an upfront presentation to their advertisers, to get the idea of how those money sources felt about the new shows. The name stems from the idea that marketers could buy commercial airtime ‘up front,’ or months in advance of the tv series. Over time, that began to include the media, and then sometimes they’re aired on TV. Rarely.

The week prior to the upfronts (it used to be by the Friday before), the axe comes down. If a show is going to be canceled, we’ll know by the weekend before the upfronts start. After all, that’s how we found out about All Rise getting canceled this year (I’m a little salty…).

Now in years past, this was also a bloodbath. It would be a frenetic 24 to 72 hours of updating entries and saying goodbye. It’s also when we get a day for a network to be dumping all the new shows, and we all scramble to figure out what’s going on. This year, Hollywood Reporter’s Lesley Goldberg called it civilized. Her basis is that the volume of shows that were picked up is significantly … different than previous years.

The Circle Game

The pandemic changed the rules on the game. There weren’t upfronts since we were all locked down in 2020. It’s 2021, and while we’re having them again, it’s much smaller (only around 25 new scripted comedies and dramas). And instead of just getting all the new shows, we actually already know a lot of shows being picked up!

CBS for example had picked up Ghosts (based on a British show of the same name), three spinoffs/reboots (CSI: Vegas, FBI: International and NCIS: Hawai’i), and the only new ones left to be picked up were Good Sam and Smallwood. CSI: Vegas is a straight to series order, and FBI: International was planned in the ‘off season’ this year. That means only two of six shows came through the ‘traditional’ pipeline.

This kind of pattern repeats for all the networks. Fox’s first pickup for 2021-22 was back in October 2020. Even the CW, who really won’t announce anything until May 25th, picked up a remake of The 4400. ABC tried it out but early pickup didn’t work out (they’d picked up a straight-to-series with Kelsey Grammer/Alec Baldwin back in November, but passed after seeing the pilot).

Does that mean that the traditional ‘drop it all on one day’ is over? Probably not in a single death blow, but the inexorable slow death is coming. There were 98 new pilots in 2013. Last year we had 39 (out of 60 proposed). This year we’re looking at 25.

What’s the Damage?

Okay, let’s do this part. I have next to no idea what shows will and won’t have queers at this point.

ABCAmerican Housewife, Call Your Mother*,
For Life, Mixed-ish, Rebel*
Black-ish (2022 is the
final season)
Abbot Elementary, Maggie,
Queens, The Wonder Years
CBSAll Rise, MacGyver, Mom,
NCIS: New Orleans, The Unicorn
CSI: Vegas, FBI: International, Good Sam,
Ghosts, NCIS: Hawai’i, Smallwood
The CWBlack Lightning, SupergirlThe 4400
FOXBless the Harts, Last Man Standing,
The Moodys, Prodigal Son
The Big Leap, The Cleaning Lady,
Fantasy Island, Monarch, Our Kind of People,
Pivoting, The Country,
Untitled Dan Harmon Project
NBCBrooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore
This is Us (2022 is the final season)
American Auto, Grand Crew, La Brea,
Ordinary Joe, The Thing About Pam

Which is a lot. Oh and if you’re wondering about the 911s, both 911 and 911: Lone Star are considered ‘a sure thing.’ Good Girls is up in the air and Manifest is looking unlikely. But other than FOX, it’s interesting to note how many canceled shows have queers.

Normally that’s a bad thing, right? Here … it’s a little weird.

NetworkFreshmen Shows
With Queers
Canceled Freshman Shows
With Queers
ABC4/4: Big Sky, Call Your Mother, Home Economics, Rebel2: Call Your Mother, Rebel
CBS3/4: Clarice, The Equalizer, B Positive0
The CW0/3 (All of their new shows have male queers if any)0
Fox0/2 (Only one has aired, no queers)0
NBC1/5: Law & Order: Organized Crime0

So when you consider we only ‘lost’ two out of eight, that means 75% of freshman shows with queers got a second season! And that’s a good number. Less good is the fact that Fox doesn’t have any, and I can’t be upset that The CW is balancing out their female queers with male ones now. As far as I know, Superman and Lois doesn’t have any yet, but seeing as literally every other show on the network has rep, I’m confident it will.

What Does All This Mean for Pilots?

It’s hard to say really. On the one hand, it’ll be nice to spread things out a little more. It would make May less stressful. On the other hand, it means that every day is a little more stressful for show runners. Instead of thinking “We have until May…” the hammer could drop at any time. Of course, that’s sort of always been true.

I expect we’ll see more full-series orders, even from networks, now that they all have their own streaming channels to move things to. It may give an opportunity for more series to take bigger chances. To try out the rare, edge ideas, since the network could put them all online. Will it work out? Only time will tell, but frankly anything that shakes us out of the status quo is a good start.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.
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