TV Pilot Season by the Numbers: Total Volume Plunges (Again)

ABC and Fox look to increase year-round development as The CW hands out its first-ever straight-to-series orders.
Courtesy of The CW
Tyler Hoechlin and Bitsie Tulloch will reprise their roles from The CW's 'Arrow'-verse in a straight-to-series 'Superman & Lois' show for the network.

Overall pilot orders at the five broadcast networks are down sharply for the second year in a row as volume dipped to its lowest mark since at least 2012.

Collectively, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW ordered 57 new dramas and comedies as three of the five broadcast networks have reduced the number of formal pilot orders. (A handful of additional pilot orders, sources say, are still in the works at ABC and possibly Fox.) Straight-to-series orders also saw an uptick this year, with six getting the formal greenlight (including one, The Kenan Show, that was rolled from last season). Included in that tally is The CW, which doled out its first-ever straight-to-series orders as fears about a Writers Guild of America strike permeate the industry. Additionally, three more pilots come with sizable series production commitments; that means that should CBS not pickup Clarice and The Lincoln Lawyer and Fox not order Call Me Kat to series, the respective networks would pay out a sizable financial penalty. 

Of the three networks with volume decreases, ABC and Fox are both looking to expand to off-cycle development (or as the former calls it, "second cycle"). That would allow writers more time to prepare scripts and allow the networks to remain open all year should compelling scripts walk through the door. It also provides broadcasters more opportunity to cast and find writers and directors outside of the compacted pilot season that already sees them compete with other networks as well as cable and a growing number of streaming platforms.

Still, as the line between a hit and a miss remains hard to define, the reduced volume can also be seen as yet another sign that broadcasters continue to allow freshman series time to grow while reducing their financial investment in pilots — and perhaps, come fall, marketing budgets for new series. (Who remembers the last time a freshman show was canceled and pulled off the schedule following one or two low-rated episodes? That appears to be reserved only for TV's biggest bombs.)

Thematically, broadcasters continue to look to reboots, spinoffs, family comedies and light-hearted procedurals to cut through the clutter. In the months to come, they will compete more than ever with cable and a growing number of streaming outlets for top stars as they hope to find the next breakout hit for the 2020-21 season.

Below is the big-picture snapshot for the year. (This will be updated with any additional orders that could come from ABC and Fox.)

Grand total: 57 (66 in 2019)
Dramas: 30 (36 in 2019)
Comedies: 27 (30 in 2019)
Single-camera: 15 (13 in 2019)
Multicamera: 10 (11 in 2019)
Hybrid/animated: 1/1 (6 in 2019, 3 of each)

Here's how overall volume compares with the past few years:

            2020   '19      '18          '17       '16       '15       '14       '13       '12                           
ABC        12     17       23          24         24        25        27        24        24
CBS        14    16       18          17         17        18        19        23        16
Fox          8      13       11          13         19        15        16        16        16
NBC        15    14      15           14         22        23        27        27        23     
The CW   8     6          9             6           6          4          6          8          8
Totals      57    66      76           74         88       85        95         98        87

Here's a closer look at Pilot Season 2020 by the numbers.  

ABC 12 (17 in 2019)

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke, who, for the first time, is now selecting pilots from scripts she and her team developed, is shifting to more of a year-round development model — or a "second cycle" model. As part of that push, pickups in the traditional pilot season window are down year-over-year to the lowest tally since at least 2012. "We're staying open year-round and we're starting a second cycle of pilots for fall and summer — and when things are ready," Burke told The Hollywood Reporter. "This is about acknowledging that the pace with which we try to get pilots ready is excruciating and so tough on writers." Thematically, ABC continues to focus on female-driven fare, particularly dramas — see Thirtysomething(else) and Brides of Dracula. "We won't be exclusively female, but we're going to lead with a female edge," said the exec.  

Big swing: ABC's biggest commitment is to The Big Sky, its David E. Kelley-penned straight-to-series cop drama. But creatively speaking, we'll go with The Brides, aka "Sexy Dracula," from Riverdale mastermind Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and super-producer Greg Berlant.

Dramas: 6 (9 in 2019)
Comedies: 6 (8 in 2019)
Single-camera: 5 (5 in 2019)
Multicamera: 1 (2 in 2019)
Hybrid: n/a (1 in 2019)

CBS 14 (16 in 2019)

There may be new executives running CBS Corp., but it's business as usual for Kelly Kahl's broadcast network. Volume dipped slightly year-over-year on the drama side as CBS is expected to return the bulk of its schedule and has two pilots with series production commitments — Alex Kurtzman's Silence of the Lambs update Clarice and David E. Kelley's The Lincoln Lawyer.

Big swing: CBS is taking a few this season. In addition to Clarice and The Lincoln Lawyer, the network has a Queen Latifah-led reboot of The Equalizer and a legal drama starring Grey's Anatomy alum Patrick Dempsey. On the comedy side, Chuck Lorre has not one but two multicams in the works as CBS could look for a larger Thursday block from the Young Sheldon, Mom and Bob Hearts Abishola boss. If we had to pick one big swing, though? Fun, the comedic take on Six Feet  Under from Michael Patrick King (2 Broke Girls) starring Ugly Betty grads Becki Newton and Michael Urie as siblings who run a funeral home.

Dramas: 6 (8 in 2019)
Comedies: 8 (8 in 2019)
Single-camera: 1 (1 in 2019)
Multicamera: 6 (5 in 2019)
Hybrid: 1 (2 in 2019)

Fox 8 (13 in 2019)

Charlie Collier's independent broadcast network doesn't have a ton of room for scripted given its commitments to football, wrestling and unscripted and is expected to see much of its current lineup return next season. Still, Empire's conclusion and a couple of rookies that flatlined create a few openings as Fox's volume is also at its lowest mark since 2012. And, like ABC, Fox will be keeping its doors open year-round as it looks to develop and produce pilots off-cycle, too.

Big swing: A TV show about a group of film students (and their substitute teacher) looking to film a re-enactment of The Goonies. Yes, really.

Dramas: 4 (6 in 2019)
Comedies: 4 (7 in 2019)
Single-camera: 2 (2 in 2019)
Multicamera: 1 (2 in 2019)
Hybrid/animated: 1 animated (3, all animated, in 2019)

NBC 15 (14 in 2019)

In his first season as NBC's lone entertainment president, Paul Telegdy got an early jump on pilot season and had wrapped all of its pickups by Feb. 1. Volume remains largely the same year-over-year, with the difference being last season's The Kenan Show being rolled over to air in the 2020-21 cycle. With The Good Place and Will & Grace both ending this season, NBC's comedy orders were up a smidge from last year.

Big swing: In addition to The Kenan Show, NBC has two straight-to-series orders — both of them slam dunks (at least on paper): Dwayne Johnson's semi-autobiographical comedy Young Rock and a Tina Fey-produced L.A. mayor half-hour starring Ted Danson in what was originally intended as a 30 Rock spinoff. (Just don't look for Law & Order: Hate Crimes, which was ordered straight to series last year and remains in limbo.)

Dramas: 6 (7 in 2019)
Comedies: 9 (7 in 2019)
Single-camera: 7 (5 in 2019)
Multicamera: 2 (2 in 2019)

The CW 8 (6 in 2019)

Speaking of getting a jump on things, newly promoted CW CEO Mark Pedowitz did just that, too, this season. The younger-skewing broadcaster — which remains a joint venture between WarnerMedia and CBS Corp. — also had all of its orders in by Feb. 1. Those included The CW's first-ever straight-to-series orders (for Superman & Lois and Walker, starring Supernatural favorite Jared Padalecki). The network is trying its hand at three different development models this year: straight-to-series, backdoor pilots (with planted episodes of Arrow and The 100 for potential offshoots) and the traditional pilot orders. Unlike previous years when The CW split buys from both of its corporate parents, this year the scales tipped in favor of Warner Bros. TV, which had five of eight pickups.

Big swing: If you feel a sense of déjà vu among The CW's pilot orders, you're not wrong. iZombie creator Rob Thomas is getting a second chance (and third overall) at getting The Lost Boys pilot right, while busted CBS drama The Republic of Sarah is being redeveloped (and recast) from last season's take that had Sarah Drew (Grey's Anatomy) attached. Thematically though, Maverick — which finds the president's daughter learning the hard things about her father — is the network's biggest creative leap.

Source: THR research

Keep track of all of this season's pilot orders, castings and eventual series orders with THR's handy guide.