TV Set Tuesday: The Calm Before The Pilot Storm

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014 - AKA: the first Tuesday back after everyone went on holiday break for the past two weeks.

If there's one thing we love in TV Land, it's vacation. And schedules. Even though the concept of "The Season" has changed since the WGA strike in 2007, and cable has always worked what we call "off cycle," for broadcast networks (that would be ABC, CBS, CW, FBS {Fox}, and NBC) they still largely run on an annual schedule that's been unchanged for years.

For point of reference, we are always working one year ahead of the calendar, so currently, we are about to go into pilot season for shows that will be slated for 2014/2015. For the uninitiated, this is roughly what that schedule looks like, when it comes to figuring out what new shows are going on air:

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Late-June - Early/Mid July: Networks will hold meetings and put out what's called a "network needs" list. This is basically a laundry list of the kinds of pitches they want to hear, scripts they want to read, and the types of shows they are looking to buy for the upcoming season. These lists somehow manage to be simultaneously useful and completely useless because it will have items like: "Want high concept, blue sky, no medical, no cops" and then that same network buys a show about medical cops solving medical crimes, and someone has some largely misunderstood mental illness. (More on how that happens in later weeks)

Mid/Late July - Labor Day: Production Company and Studio pitches (By mid August, network pitches start too). Quick FCC note: networks do not own content; they own airwaves. They must purchase content from studios to broadcast on their air. When large corporations began buying up studios and network interests, they started getting around this by vertically integrating, which made it more difficult to produce quality content (again, a longer story for another time). For understanding this, just know that writers that are well known are often their own producers (have a production shingle/company), or younger writers partner first by selling their pitch or script to a production company. The PC (or writer, if he or she is big enough) sell it to the studio, and then that whole glob then sells to the network. There are also instances where someone (writer, talent, producer) is so big, that they get a network commitment right away, and they lay it back off to a studio to actually produce the content.

Confused yet? Yeahhhh, we're just getting started.

Labor Day - End September/Middish October: Sometimes it's really hard to target the end of development season (this whole running around with scripts and pitches like a chicken with its head and writing wings cut off, trying desperately to make a sale for the chance of possibly being picked up to pilot to maybe getting picked up to series to maybe making it past 4 episodes after premiering). Development season basically ends when the networks are "bought up" (run out of money). Generally drama runs out of money first, comedy follows pretty soon after.

At this point, at least this year, here's what we're looking at:

ABC - made 114 commitments(1): 61 drama, 53 comedy

CBS - made 58 commitments: 31 drama, 27 comedy

CW - made 29 commitments, all drama (They do not do comedy)

Fox - made 99 commitments: 45 drama, 54 comedy

NBC - made 109 commitments: 45 drama, 64 comedy(2)

So, for those of you keeping track at home, that's 409 commitments across 5 networks. For most of these commitments, all that means is that someone is getting paid a bit of money (variable on so many factors) to write a script that they have the privilege of giving to a network to have it torn apart, asked to be rewritten a couple of times, and then possibly told that it's not going to work and oops, guess they're going to go with one of the other scripts that's developing more strongly instead. Thanks for playing!

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October - End of December: Nothing much happens. The only stuff happening in the TV world is that the lucky people who have scripts or pitches in contention are getting their drafts into the networks for possible greenlighting, further rewrites before a final decision, or the thumbs-down, "thanks for playing you fucking moron" kick to the curb. We'll hear about some early pilot pickups usually in December (there are also series commitments, which can happen anytime during development season; those only really started happening again this year. I hadn't really seen any from the time of the strike - 2007 - until now. They weren't unheard of, but were very, very rare post strike. Things seem to be changing again).

January: (Welcome to now): Pilot pickups mostly happen throughout this month. So far, as of today, there are 24 pilot pickups (not including blind series commitments).(3)

Basically, when this is all said and done, about 3/4 of those people that were so happy for a commitment will not be working on any show come February 1.

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As pilots are picked up, they go to hire their key positions: director, line producer, heads of departments.

February(4): Everyone in talent loses their fucking minds. This is when most of the casting happens. Now, with some pilots, they already come packaged with marquee talent, so many series regular roles are already filled, and another 2/3 of them start with offer only. That leaves 1/3 of series of series regular roles up for grabs (again, these are rough numbers). These are long, loooooooong days for actors, talent reps, casting directors, producers, and directors. Each role can get hundreds upon hundreds of submissions - we can get into this in the weeks to come. It's just a grind. February is pretty much solely devoted to casting series regulars, recurring characters, and high profile guest stars.

Production people and department heads open their production offices, hire their crews, and lots and lots of meetings happen about how in the hell they're going to transform this chunk of pages into something people see and hear.

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March: Everyone in production loses their fucking minds. This is when the bulk of pilots are shot. That means all sets have to be built and finished, locations found and secured, costumes constructed, all crews assembled, actors deals' hammered into place, all casting done (down to the extras), and all the food locked and loaded to feed up to 150 people up to 5 times every single day while in production.

Pilot filming, very, very generally speaking has a budget roughly 3 times what it would take to produce a single episode during the series, and about 2 1/2 times the amount of days to shoot the entire episode. I won't disclose budget numbers for pilots, because (1) it's protected behind NDAs, (2) the explanation of above-the-line and below-the-line is long and complicated, (3) same for trying to explain why certain budget line items cost what they do, and (4) it's an invasion of privacy, since that budget covers a hell of a lot of salaries.

Timing, however: Dramas usually get anywhere from 15-20 days to shoot, depending on the complexity. Comedies will generally rehearse for 2+ weeks, and have 1 taping night for multi-cameras (in front of a live audience), or 7-10 days for single-camera comedies.

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April:Everyone in post-production and in TV Lit representation loses their fucking minds. Footage is getting turned in, there are hard deadlines for studio and network cuts to review how pilots have come out, and editors are working around the clock with the creator, executive producers, and director to man-handle hours and hours and hours of footage into a cohesive storyline. It's basically like putting together a 10,000 piece puzzle while on LSD and without sleep. Then you have to bring in all the finishing work, like ADR (re-recording sound that didn't get picked up very well in the moment), recording or licensing music for scoring, sound mixing, all that fun stuff.

So while that's happening, the rumor mill kicks into overdrive about what's looking good and what's not. This is when TV Lit agents and managers really kick into high gear. Remember those 75% of people who didn't get a pilot pickup? Well, they all need jobs. So do the people that aren't already on shows. So do the people that are working, but on shows that may not come back. So do the people that are working and know their shows aren't coming back. Not to mention people trying to break in, diversity hires, and the favors that are owed. It's a giant fucking mosh pit of scripts, phone calls, reading, more phone calls, and lots and lots of list making. Bear in mind, we have no idea for the most part what's even going on air.

1st Week of May: Everyone at the networks loses their fucking minds. Networks make their decisions on what's going to stay on air (that's already there), what's getting canceled, and what pilots will be picked up (along with their episode commitments.)(5) Out of those 409 commitments, the 100ish pilots, about 15-25% of those will actually go to air, depending on what's staying on air. So for sake of numbers, let's say 20 out of that original 409 make it to air. That's 5% of commitments that make it to air.

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2nd Week of May: Everyone in Hollywood loses their fucking minds. Deals need to be closed for picked up shows for the creator, the executive producers, the key talent (that they decide to keep), options need to be picked up, extended, or dropped, arrangements need to be made to fly talent and producers in for the upfronts, itineraries made for agents and clients, plus, don't forget us lit people, still duking it out for the few jobs that are available in each room.

3rd Week of May: Upfronts - all the networks present their slates for the upcoming season and everyone gets very, very drunk.

Memorial Day: We all get the fuck out of Dodge to relax and get very, very drunk.

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End of May - Beginning of June: All writers' rooms finish getting staffed up, there is another mini "pilot season" when there are re-castings of actors who didn't work out (for whatever reason) in a pilot that was picked up and now needs to be replaced.

Mid June: Production offices open for the shows going on air in the fall for writers to start breaking scripts, and for production to crew up all departments for the season.

And then we're back to late June and we start all over again.

I'm here to try and provide an inside view of what's going on this pilot season, based on what I've experienced working with talent (rep side), writers (rep and production side), set work (from the producer camp and the crew camp), post production, and being a TV lit coordinator. Travel along, ask questions; I'll always do my best to be as accurate as possible, but know that sometimes I will be deliberately vague on certain issues if I feel it would break my NDA, but I'll be honest about it.

That's Entertainment!

(1) Commitments encompasses: scripts, scripts backed with a penalty, put pilots, series orders, and backdoors

(2) Source, all network numbers: http://www.thefutoncritic.com/devwatch.aspx

(3) Source: http://www.deadline.com/primetime-pilo…

(4) There is bleed through on timing in regards to which sector of the business is about to have their head explode throughout these months. I'm basing my comments on what the bulk of the industry is doing in any particular month.

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(5) Episode commitment shorthand: 6 episodes - very little faith, but still better than what else came in, 13 episodes - half season (or, increasingly, "limited full season" - close to the UK model), 22+ episodes - full season