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The Life of a TV Show: from Pilot to Finale

Pilot Season

If I mentioned summertime and pitches in the same sentence you might assume that I’m talking about baseball, and most of the time that would be a logical assumption. In this particular instance, however, we’re talking about the genesis of new television shows. When television writers—established or otherwise—pitch new show ideas to network executives.

Even for established writers, the odds are against their idea making it into the fall lineup. This is due in part to the sheer number of ideas pitched, as well as the TV executive responsibility to ensure quality television programming hits the airwaves.

These creative endeavors are a risky proposition even for veterans of their craft. Established authors sometimes write stinkers; performance artists sometimes fall flat; and film directors sometimes give us turkeys.

Here’s a fascinating look at a process in which we’ve all participated in some fashion or another—most likely as television viewers—that sheds light on what it takes to go from successful pitch to series finale.

The Pitch Television writers spend the spring polishing their ideas, creating back stories for their characters, and creating interesting potential plots, all for a shot in front of a television executive in the early summer. If a pitch gets a bite from a television executive, then the real work begins for the writers.

Executives expect a first draft of a pilot script in the fall, which gives them a few weeks to read it, have several others read it, and compile all their notes before sending the scripts back to the writers for re-writes in the winter.

“We always do everything we think is right. But there’s still an alchemy of those [pilots] connecting in a broader popular way that turns a TV series into a hit,” says Barry Jossen, Executive Vice President at ABC Entertainment Group.

Today’s shows are up against a tremendous number of external forces, including a wide range of network, cable, and premium channels from which to choose, streaming resources like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and the prominence of DVRs employed for viewing at a more convenient time.

The Cost There’s no fixed cost or budget for getting a pilot created, but it’s certainly not a “sky’s the limit” mentality. There’s also no direct correlation with the cost of a pilot and a show’s eventual success. The pilot for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as an example, was filmed for $85 and has successfully run for eight seasons with a ninth already in production.

Other pilots, however, got carte blanche with mixed results. The Fugitive with Tim Daly had a $6 million pilot in 2000 and wasn’t renewed for a second season. On the other hand, Fox Network’s Fringe left nothing on the table with its $10 million pilot and enjoyed five full seasons before recently airing its 100th and final episode.

Other popular shows with big-budget pilots include Lost ($14 million), Game of Thrones ($10 million), and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire starring Steve Buscemi came into existence with a whopping $18 million pilot!

The Pilot After the holidays, network executives waste no time making decisions about shows they believe have a chance in the fall. Writers are informed in January whether or not an executive has ordered a pilot. Should a writer find success during the pitch process, he or she will be burning the midnight oil getting that pilot produced sometime before May.

This is when the executive ordering the pilot hires an executive producer, known as a showrunner in the industry. Experienced writers with one or more successful show will often run their own pitch. After all, it’s their idea and they’re in the best position to make their vision a reality.

The showrunner generally has final say over each script and storyline, and is a key decision maker when it comes to casting each major character and each recurring minor player.

According to figures for the four major networks, each gets roughly 500 pitches each year. Nearly 90 percent are culled after the pitch, leaving roughly 70 ideas worthy of a pilot script. About one-third of the 70—approximately 20—will have a pilot episode created, and depending on each network’s needs somewhere between four and eight will be picked up for an initial season. Only one or two of those shows will see more than one season.

Acceptance By May, nearly a year since the pitch, writers know whether or not their idea has been picked up as a series by a network. When a series gets picked up for the fall, it’s a mad-dash to get a minimum of four episodes written, cast, and shot. As harrowing as this all sounds from an outsider’s perspective, it’s even more so for those pulling it off.

Including cast and crew, more than 80 people are frequently involved, from the showrunner right on down the line to the unpaid interns who are intent on learning the ropes of the television industry.

Most shows never make it past one season, including some shows that tested well with audiences and even had decent Nielsen numbers. One of the most popular and successful television sitcoms, Seinfeld, had a lukewarm reception as a pitch and pilot script, but one note from one executive changed everything. That note? “Needs a girl.” The character of Elaine was born and the rest, as they say, is history.

Other shows initially underperform with audiences but savvy executives know everything is in place for success and stick with them. A perfect example is Cheers, the smash hit featuring Kelsey Grammar, George Wendt, and Shelley Long.

In 1982 the show premiered as the lowest-rated show on television. Granted, there were a lot fewer channels and options back then, and “lowest rated” didn’t necessarily mean “terrible,” but NBC executives stuck with it and by the next season, and for several seasons after, it was the number one sitcom on television.

In the final analysis, it’s a bit of a crap-shoot for network executives, and it’s getting more challenging by the day. Viewers today not only have far more choices than ever before, they also have a wide range of ways to view via television, computers, tablets, and smartphones. Each of these need to be considered by network executives each time they hear a pitch, order a pilot, and green-light a show for the upcoming season.

Lisa has been watching TV since before she could walk. Not much has changed: she would still rather watch TV than walk nearly 25 years later. When she isn't watching New Girl, Community, or Glee, she loves spending time with her husband.

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