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Kevin Reilly's War on TV Pilot Season: Will Other Networks Follow Fox? (Analysis)

War on Pilot Season - P 2014
Illustration by: John Ueland

As the network chair attacks the traditional development season, rivals and talent both praise and fear the shake-up; says "Homeland's" Howard Gordon, "It's about time."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"RIP pilot season."

That was the phrase Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly used to kick off the semiannual TV press tour Jan. 13. "Look at the batting average -- we couldn't do any worse," he said of the decades-old broadcast network model in which 80 to 100 pilots vie for the same talent each winter, all on a rushed timeline to deliver around 40 fresh shows for the May upfront. In a bid to resemble cable rivals, Reilly said he'll develop all year and focus on series rather than pilots.

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"I'd love to see others follow suit because I think it would be healthier for the broadcast business," he said later in a THR interview. But the announcement hasn't drawn unanimous support from his competitors, and big questions remain about the practical impact of the move. While each of the five nets is experimenting with year-round programming and direct-to-series bets (see CBS' Under the Dome, ABC's forthcoming The Black Box), none is ready to follow Reilly's dramatic leap -- at least not yet.

"It takes that kind of pressure to deliver that kind of gem," CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler told THR, likening the pilot-season process to making diamonds. NBC's Bob Greenblatt and ABC's Paul Lee (who, like Tassler, program three hours nightly, an hour more than Fox) both suggested they will order fewer pilots as they test other models, but neither is prepared to declare war on a formal pilot season.

The move likely will save Fox money on projects that never make it to air. "Pilot season is hugely wasteful," said veteran writer Noah Hawley (FX's upcoming Fargo). "If you do the math, each network wastes about $100 million a year between pilots they shot but didn't go forward on and series they [hastily] picked up and canceled after 10 episodes." But Reilly said cost-cutting is not the motivation, nor is he certain that a schedule of year-round originals ultimately will prove cheaper. Rather, the increasing allure of cable drove him to rethink his strategy. "It used to be a given that the talent and the talent agencies would line up around the broadcast pitch season first and then take whatever was still available out to cable," he said. "I hate to say it, but it's just not going down that way anymore. There are things that are bypassing the broadcast networks altogether. I'm just declaring I got a seat at the table."

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Only a few years ago, the suggestion of pilot season's demise would have caused mass hysteria among talent representatives, for whom traditional network "waste" means jobs for their clients. But Reilly's plans didn't set off wide-scale panic, in part because the period's importance has waned thanks to the recent explosion of TV content on cable and such new players as Netflix and Amazon.

In fact, the broadcast nets struggled to lure projects in the traditional pitch season from July to December. At the same time, at least 40 to 50 pilots, most for cable, actively were casting. (There are similar concerns about how the lack of talent available will impact the current crop of pilots casting in the next several weeks.)

As a result, much of the talent community is cautiously optimistic about Fox's strategy. "It's about time," noted producer Howard Gordon (Homeland) of Reilly's plan. Added Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel), "What you want to do as an executive or as a showrunner is to eliminate those stress points that make it hard to make a show of quality."

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To be sure, Fox will continue to make some pilots, particularly in comedy, where testing chemistry is important. But Reilly suggested he will do so without being tethered to the crunched pilot season timeline. When it comes to dramas, he anticipates ordering more series templates with backup scripts, writers rooms or full-season bibles in place -- if not full series orders. That Reilly's schedule is predominantly filled with serialized dramas and single-camera comedies also was a factor. If he had Tassler's CBS slate, which relies on multicam comedies and procedurals (the former more efficient to produce, the latter easier to retool midrun), he said he wouldn't be as interested in making changes.

Reilly's plan is not without risk, with at least one studio chief predicting he would return to pilots next year if some of his straight-to-series bets "blow up on him." Another notes he'll be less likely to take fare to Fox unless he is sure it's a Fox-type show. Still others worry what this could mean for up-and-coming or even midlevel writer-producers, given that straight-to-series offers tend to favor more experienced developers a la Bruno Heller (Fox's Gotham) and Hart Hanson (Backstrom). After all, Greenblatt acknowledges he wouldn't have made a series gamble on The Blacklist, fall's biggest new hit, because it came from an inexperienced writer in Jon Bokenkamp. Said Greenblatt, "It probably would never have seen the air had we not made a pilot."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.