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Why TV Networks Are Bypassing Pilots for Direct-to-Series Orders

Direct to Series Orders Split - H 2013
Travis Beacham and Kevin Reilly

Fox ordered 13 episodes of "Pacific Rim" writer Travis Beacham's "Hieroglyph," while CBS ponied up for Vince Gilligan and David Shore's "Battle Creek" thanks to big ideas and pressure from competitors.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As the battle for eyeballs grows more competitive, the broadcast TV networks increasingly are rethinking the pilot process.

On Oct. 17, Fox said it would bypass the pilot stage with a 13-episode commitment for Hieroglyph, a fantastical drama from Pacific Rim writer Travis Beacham. The project, which centers on a notorious thief plucked from prison to serve the Pharaoh, became the latest in a string of straight-to-series orders. Fox already has made series bets on Tina Fey, Matt Hubbard and Robert Carlock's untitled women's college comedy and the Batman prequel Gotham, while CBS is going the series route with the summer sci-fi drama Extant as well as its Vince Gilligan-David Shore cop drama Battle Creek.

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Blame the shift on the influx of TV competitors, from Netflix to WGN America, that are elbowing their way into the game by offering massive commitments. "A lot of this is about getting people to come to us over cable," says a network source of the broadcast buys, with another pointing to Netflix's 26-episode order for House of Cards as the game-changer.

"As networks are trying to figure out how to compete with basic cable, premium cable and productions for digital platforms, what everyone realizes is, they have to be bold and not shy away from big ideas," says 20th Century Fox TV chair Gary Newman, acknowledging that some of the biggest swings aren't feasible on the pilot model. Take Hieroglyph, whose ancient Egypt setting would make little economic sense if costs couldn't be amortized over multiple episodes. Or Extant, which wouldn't have lured Halle Berry to star had it not received an on-air commitment. "These high-level actors are not interested in being in a failed pilot," notes one insider.

There are other reasons at play, too. Fox Entertainment chair Kevin Reilly has explained that his moves are a way to "unwind" his network off the antiquated pilot cycle -- a "silly system," as he put it in a recent interview with THR. Fox spends as much as $4 million a pop to license each pilot, many of which viewers never see. The straight-to-series strategy allows networks and studios to have a product that they can exploit immediately on air and in the international marketplace.

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Not that network heads like Reilly or CBS' Nina Tassler plan to stop making pilots altogether. For every direct-to-series success like CBS' Under the Dome, there's a pricey flop like NBC's The Michael J. Fox Show. To land the latter, NBC committed to airing 22 episodes, and ratings have been low. Reilly noted that a pilot still can serve as a helpful test -- or a hedge, when talented people go off track.

"From a network perspective, [direct-to-series] is a far riskier way to go, which is why you won't see a wholesale change in this direction," says Newman, pointing out that a network is making a $30 million bet on 13 episodes rather than a single $3 million to $4 million wager on a pilot. "But when you have the right property and the right talent involved, you're going to see networks do this both to win projects from other networks and to make projects that at another time maybe weren't possible because they were too big."