Canceled or Not? Indecision Plagues TV Pilot Season

2012-08 REP Pilot Season Illustration H
iStock Photo; Brooks Rushton/Fox; ABC/Patrick Harbron

As TV's annual rush to cast pilots kicks into high gear, a troubling theme has developed: the high cost of indecision among executives. From left: Fox's "Terra Nova" and ABC's "Pan Am."

Actors suffer as networks increasingly refuse to pull the plug on low-rated series.

As TV's annual rush to cast pilots kicks into high gear, a troubling theme has developed: the high cost of indecision among executives. In an era of eroding ratings, it has become increasingly unclear which shows will get canceled and which will live on. Does the 1.2 demo rating averaged by CBS' A Gifted Man mean it will get the hook? Is Terra Nova's 2.5 enough to survive on Fox? How about Fringe's 1? Or CSI: NY's 1.5 on CBS? Bearing the brunt of the networks' unwillingness to decide the fate of that ballooning class of bubble shows are the series' casts, who by and large have had to sit and watch projects go by this pilot season.

A current show "will really need to have nails in the coffin for networks to take a chance [on a second-position actor]," gripes one agent, referring to the practice of casting a role with the knowledge that the star might become unavailable if his or her show is renewed. Of course, as another notes, what qualifies as "nail in the coffin" is no longer so clear, given the ratings free fall in recent years. 

Among the few exceptions: NBC's The Firm, currently being burned off on Saturday nights, and ABC's Pan Am, whose co-star Mike Vogel was cast in Fox's Rob McElhenney comedy pilot. Vogel's co-star Karine Vanasse is said to have put herself on the market in recent weeks. Still, casting her is a bit of a gamble if ABC decides to bring back the airline drama.

"Why would I take that risk, especially at a time when networks don't want to spend money and you could have to reshoot the whole thing?" says one prominent producer, who, like many, suggests the networks don't need to settle because they have more big names (see recent castings Kevin Bacon) than ever to choose from thanks to the decline in movie-making. Adds another network insider, "Why take an arrow out of your quiver like that?"

That risk proved costly for Fox's New Girl and, to a lesser extent, NBC's upcoming low-budget comedy Best Friends Forever. Both had to recast when Damon Wayans Jr. and Adam Pally's Happy Endings was renewed by ABC in May. A year earlier, CBS got burned when Lizzy Caplan had to bow out of the comedy Mad Love due to her commitment to Starz's Party Down. (She was replaced by Judy Greer.)

Even if the monetary costs of recasting are minimal, switching up a show can upset its chemistry at the most vulnerable time. Complains one exec, "So now all of a sudden you have to recast, and suddenly we don't know what it is that we've ordered to series."