FOX vs. The Pilot Process

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For a long time, there has existed an antiquated and incredibly flawed system in Hollywood. In order to get a new television show on the air, the same process had to be followed: Writers pitch network executives shows who decide if the idea is worth a pilot order. The couple of dozen or so that are given a pilot order are given a few million dollars (give or take) to produce one episode of television that is both funny/compelling and emblematic of what the series will be down the road. After producing pilots from January to May, somewhere around 25-33% of pilots are given a series orders and immediately start the rat race of trying to stay on an insane production schedule. The pilots that aren’t picked up fade away, and are never to be heard from again. If this all sounds inefficient and comically stupid to you, then welcome to the bandwagon. Watching networks flush millions of dollars down the drain every summer may sound like someone’s idea of a good time, but a lot of people are starting to realize the madness behind the process.

One of these people is Fox’s network head, Kevin Reilly. Long established as one of television’s smarter executives, Reilly is trying his best to get ahead of the curve. He recognizes the inefficiencies in the pilot process. He sees what nontraditional content providers like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are doing. As a result, Reilly is trying to innovate in one of stodgiest practices in Hollywood by eschewing pilots entirely. Instead, Fox is giving an increasing amount of shows the straight to series order. For 2014 alone, Fox has handed out more than a half dozen such orders, including a comedy from Tina Fey, fantasy-adventure Hieroglyph, and Batman-less Gotham. It’s a move that would have seemed insane even a few years ago… and probably still seems insane now. While Reilly is the first to push this many of his chips into the pile, he’s far from the innovator in this regard.

The straight to series order is not a new practice. Its been around for years. However, most of the instances are few and far between and were given to known quantities. Back in the 80s, CBS gave a straight to series order to Amazing Stories, which had Steven Spielberg attached. It was the perfect storm of known quantity and a network with hours to fill (CBS and Spielberg collaborated for another straight to series order in 2013 with the preposterously stupid Under the Dome). Since then, the straight to series order has been used sparingly, and with mixed results. Netflix has had a ton of success with its original content department. Both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were straight to series orders. Of course, NBC tried a straight to series order with The Michael J. Fox Show and fell flat on its face (classic NBC).

Though the results have been mixed, Fox believes their new way of doing business is where television is heading. Other network brass will see the failure of The Michael J. Fox Show and use it as a cautionary tale against doing straight to series business, but Reilly believes the math will ultimately work out in his favor. Whether he turns out to be right or not, it’s exciting to see a television executive thinking about programming in an interesting way. Reilly doesn’t belong on television executive Mount Rushmore yet, but at least he’s trying to work around a system that everyone knows is broken. Regardless of how it turns out, he should be applauded for the effort.