TCA Takeaways: Fox’s Pass on Pilot Season Lets Network Have It Both Ways

TCA 2014 Wrap-up: Kevin Reilly’s decision means Fox can have no cake, and eat it too

The biggest industry news to come out of the Television Critics Association winter press tour was Fox’s announcement that it is skipping pilot season. Accompanied by an image of a tombstone reading “”R.I.P. Fox ‘Pilot Season’ 1986-2013,” network president Kevin Reilly said the old way of choosing new shows was a product of a “different era.”

It was a savvy way for Fox to pass on cake, and eat it too. Because since that Jan. 13 announcement, Fox has announced eight new projects — more than any other network in that time frame. And all the announcements are happening right in the middle of pilot season.

At the time of Reilly’s announcement, Fox already had nine shows in the works, including “Gotham,” a new Batman origin series, a show built around standup John Mulaney, and the “Broadchurch” remake “Gracepoint.”

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Another network head couldn’t help but notice that Fox, which is in the third place in the key 18-49 demographic, seemed to be as invested in pilot season as ever.

“Well, it’s funny,” said NBC entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt. “I hear he abandoned pilots and then just picked up a bunch of prototypes with an intent to go to series with extra scripts and stuff. So I don’t know if that’s not sort of another way of doing a version of the pilot process.”

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Fox and NBC, more than any other networks, have tried to break up the traditional network calendar. NBC has become the top network in 18-49 demo in part by programming year-round, introducing hits like “The Voice” late in the traditional September to May season to stand out from the competition. This year, Fox will unveil one of its biggest hopes, “24: Live Another Day,” late in the spring, betting that it will face almost no competition.

Fox’s abandonment of pilot season looks like a way of expanding the approach. But it may also be intended to lower the guard of the other networks with whom he is bidding for shows. If they were foolish enough to count Fox out, the network might be able to outmaneuver them for hot projects.

Also read: CBS’s Nina Tassler Promises Late Night Surprises, Defends Pilot Season’s ‘Creative Adrenaline’

But no one is counting Fox out, as Greenblatt’s comment shows. The other networks have also opted to continue doing pilot season as usual. CBS’s Nina Tassler, for one, believes the stress of pilot season helps bring out the “creative adrenaline” of Hollywood’s top talents.

Pilot season involves the broadcast networks ordering more than a hundred pilots in the winter, casting and shooting them, and then choosing a select few in time for the networks’ upfront presentations to advertisers. Last year, NBC announced 14 new shows for the current season, the most of any network. Fox, which programs only two hours of primetime instead of the three programmed by ABC, CBS and NBC, announced 11 new shows.

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Here’s how Reilly described the traditional pilot process:

“After the pilot season is over, we screen them and schedule them and announce them in a compressed and crazy, condensed two week period. We go to the upfront. Then they have six weeks to get into production and get on the air. Honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything of quality in that environment. When they are competing, frankly, with a huge swath of cable that has a lot of flexibility and order pattern and flexibility in when the shows can go on, cable networks are able to course correct creatively and reshoot and recast. When we do that, we are already driving into a time period. We are behind schedule. It’s big news when we shut down.”

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He noted that “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof has said “When you slow down the conveyor belt, the quality goes up.”

“And I agree with him,” Reilly said. “And that’s what we want to do on Fox.”

Besides slowing down, Fox’s conveyer belt will operate on its own schedule. Reilly started ordering his current shows much earlier than networks typically do. Fox greenlit “24” and another limited-run series, “Wayward Pines” a year before they will go to air.

The limited-run series is another clever network technique of underpromising, with the potential to overdeliver. If a limited series (you may remember when they were called “miniseries” scores so-so ratings — like CBS’s “Hostages” has this year — the network can let it quietly end its run.

But if a limited-run series overperforms — like CBS’s “Under the Dome” did last summer — the network can keep ordering new seasons indefinitely.

The same thing may happen with Fox’s non-pilot season. If the projects it locks in during pilot season become hits, the pilot season that it skipped pilot season may be its most successful in years.

For the record: An earlier version of this story said that Fox was currently in fourth place season-to-date in the key demo. Fox is currently in third, just a tenth of a point behind second place CBS.