Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Upfronts Week: The Pilot

This is "Upfronts Week", the week when television networks show off their new television schedules to advertisers looking to spend money on commercial time. This week can be a career maker for a young ad buyer. Since new shows have no track record to base ad rates on, the networks are often willing to sell ad time to buyers at sharply discounted rates. If the show becomes a break out hit, the ad buyer's employer will be quite pleased; they pre-purchased the ad time, so they won't have to pay the new rates for the new hit. If the show is a disaster, well, it might spell the end of the line for the buyer.

So what do the buyers base their decisions on? Pilots, of course. In a bizarre network tradition at the beginning of the year, millions of dollars are spent producing sample TV shows- "pilots"- most of which will never see the light of day. The networks claim these pilots are necessary to determine how a show might turn out as it goes from the page to the stage, but strangely enough, many shows with big name talent behind them get picked up anyway even if the pilot stinks. The network just tells everyone that the pilot wasn't great, but with a big name like "Nathan Lane," "Bette Midler" or "Heather Graham" attached, the retooled show has to be great, right? (Surprise, it often isn't.) Some excellent pilots that everyone at the network loves won't get picked up at all, regardless of quality. Lookup Heat Vision & Jack for an example.

So why do the networks still spend money on pilots? It's just the way things have always been done, so the networks keep doing it. It's why some shows have an amazing start, then quickly falter; the show's creators put lots of effort into the greatest pilot ever, but then can't translate that into a weekly show. Some legends refused to make pilots, seeing them as wasteful. Walt Disney never made one for any of his television shows. The company he founded, however, now owns a network and that network spends millions producing these pilots every year like all the other networks do. At least it helps the economy! (If any network wants to pay us to make a pilot, however, they're the greatest things ever!)