Nets still flying with pilots

NBC's straight-to-series gambit 'didn't really pan out' this season

Partly by choice and partly by necessity because the WGA strike cut short the pilot season, this year was supposed to be the dawn of a new era for series development. NBC skipped pilots, going straight to series, while CBS opted for shorter, less expensive drama presentations.

"Pilots are vastly overrated," CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves declared last spring.

Said NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker in January, "The odds of success are just as great going straight to series as they are in making all of those pilots."

Less than a year later, few are talking about overhauling the pilot format. Most networks have taken further steps toward year-round development: In July, Fox said it would screen pilots in December and May, and ABC said it would break up the development cycle into three mini-pilot seasons. But after getting a lot of bad rap for their exorbitant costs and failure to realistically represent what the potential series might be, pilots seem to be making a quiet comeback.

Pilot-free series have fared poorly this fall: NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Crusoe" crashed. "Kath & Kim" has modest ratings and is being retooled. Several more direct-to-series shows — NBC's "Kings" and "The Philanthropist," ABC's "In the Motherhood" and "The Goode Family" and Fox's "Dollhouse" — are on tap for midseason. Two of them — the Joss Whedon/Eliza Dushku thriller "Dollhouse" and the globe- trotting adventure "Philanthropist" — have undergone extensive revamps, with "Dollhouse" getting a time slot downgrade to low-rated Friday night.

"The lesson learned from the last year is that going straight to series is a tool to be used, but not the only tool to be used," NBC co-chair Marc Graboff said. "There's no blanket rule that covers every situation."

Graboff said that having "Enemy" take a fall slot right away saved NBC the cost of shooting several pilots to contend for its position.

Without a pilot, the usual retooling and polishing process during and immediately after the pilot season often gets pushed further down the production timeline.

"Enemy" did have time to receive a creative overhaul between the first and second episode to fix issues with its "pilot," yet the revamp did not change the show's fate.

One could argue that if NBC shot more pilots, "Enemy" might not have been on the schedule in the first place. But Graboff said the network "made all the pilots we wanted to make."

Still, following the shaky fall launches, NBC is shifting from a "no pilots" policy to deciding on a project's development route on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, CBS ordered nine drama pilots this past season, six of them presentations. Only one of the presentations, the horror tale "Harper's Island," landed a series order for midseason, while all three full-blown pilots — "Mentalist," "Eleventh Hour" and "The Ex List" — made it to the fall schedule. "Mentalist" has become a breakout hit, while "Hour" also is expected to receive an order for additional episodes.

NBC's strategy has been to get advertisers in on the ground floor of new shows, both creatively and financially. GM vehicles were featured prominently in "Enemy"; in "Kings," it was insurer Liberty Mutual's idea that sparked the show itself, and they've been heavily involved with the production.

And then there's the other immutable law of TV production: Some shows just don't work.

"Who's to say that with 'My Own Worst Enemy,' they could have shot a pilot and came up with the same decision?" said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at New York-based Horizon Media.

But NBC co-chair Ben Silverman has said that he's not as focused on the ratings as on the shows' — and the networks' — profitability. That has caused derision from some who point out that the programs need to be watched for them to be effective. Still, some industry observers think there might be something to the Silverman Doctrine.

"Even though some of these shows have failed, I don't know that they've failed the same ways that the same shows on other networks have failed and taken some kind of hits to their bottom line," an executive said.

Adgate said he thinks that pilots aren't necessarily going to go away because some networks remain committed to them. But it's not likely that all the networks are going to go back to the old way of doing business.

"That ship might have sailed as well," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, vp and director SMG Entertainment.

For Adgate, the jury is still out.

"I don't think you can draw a conclusion based on this season. I think we're going to have at least another season of networks experimenting," he said. Because of the economy, Adgate said, this year's development season could feature even fewer pilots.

"It's going to be a lot like last year but for entirely different reasons," Adgate said.

Advertisers have had mixed results with the ability to get more involved with programs from their inception. While some of the networks and advertisers reported smooth sailing, others had more trouble. For her part, Caraccioli-Davis said that Starcom Entertainment's work with Applebee's over "Friday Night Lights" went well. But it's likely that advertisers, who were understanding about the strike-induced problems with development last year, will want more than just network and producer assurances about the tracks of the shows.

"Advertisers will want something more like a presentation tape, maybe a script," she said. "We understand the complexities of their business, and based on budgets, they may not be able to show us full pilots by May."

But that understanding only goes so far when millions of ad dollars are on the line.

"We had to go a lot this year based on log lines, show descriptions, a little bit of tape of a producer talking about the show," Caraccioli-Davis said. "It didn't really pan out for anybody. That approach didn't work for the networks, either."

Paul J. Gough reported from New York; James Hibberd reported from Los Angeles.