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TV pilots are still on the networks' radar

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Spring is the time of year when much of the TV business slaves away on pilots, with actors and crews often pulling 14-hour-plus workdays to deliver sample episodes in hopes that, come May, the networks will add their series to their fall lineups.

But pilot season is changing this time around, in ways that reveal how deeply network TV is being affected by cable and online competition. The four major networks are sending more shows straight into series production, bypassing the pilot production process altogether. Sixteen series are now enjoying that privilege, compared with just two — NBC's "The Michael J. Fox Show" and Fox's "Dads" — last year.

Among them are ABC's "The Club," a soap set at a private country club, which was greenlighted even after "American Hustle" director David O. Russell dropped out as a producer; and Fox's ancient Egyptian thriller "Hieroglyph," which got the straight-to-series nod after languishing in development for several years.

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The trend is being driven by several factors, including network cost-cutting. Pilots are a major expense, yet most of them aren't picked up for the fall season and are quickly forgotten. But perhaps more important, networks face an onslaught of competition from upstart cable and online providers like Netflix, which aren't wedded to stodgy TV traditions. Netflix's first original drama, the acclaimed "House of Cards," was ordered straight to series without a pilot.

"We really, truly are in a transitional period," NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke said. Pilot season is "a ridiculous process," she added. "We've all been saying it for so long."

The fate of "Hieroglyph" illustrates the shift. A few years ago Fox passed on making a pilot for the proposed series by screenwriter Travis Beacham, which seemed like the kiss of death.

This year, however, Fox decided to take the series. But it didn't just order a pilot — it ordered 13 episodes.

"The biggest advantage of a series order is that it gives us a crucial head start on the sort of preparation it takes to realize a world as lush and complex as this," Beacham told The Times in an email. "It's hard to invest that kind of effort in a pilot that may or may not see the light of day. Without a series commitment, it's almost impossible for something like 'Hieroglyph' to happen."

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For years, pilot season has followed a regular schedule. Executives decide in January which scripts to make as pilots. The shows are then cast and staffed with crew members, with production and editing targeted for March and April. As many as three-quarters of the pilots can end up on the scrap heap.

This year the broadcast networks are producing 87 pilots, about 15% fewer pilots than the 102 made last year, studio executives say (an exact number can differ depending on how one counts special cases, such as pilots that are "rolled over" from year to year).

Kevin Reilly, entertainment chairman at Fox, has vowed to exit the pilot-season derby, arguing that it wastes millions of dollars every year and has a terrible track record of producing hits. Each network now spends up to $100 million every year on development, much of it on pilots that never go anywhere.

The average one-hour drama pilot costs up to $8 million, nearly four times as much as a typical episode in a series might cost. Much of the extra expense comes from longer shooting schedules, as studios strive to create the best possible version for executives who screen pilots in early May.

And yet well over half of new series fail to return for a second season anyway.

"Look at the batting average: We couldn't do any worse," Reilly told TV journalists recently, explaining his thinking on the pilot process.

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Some of his rivals are coming around to that view too. The mad dash every April produces dozens of hours of carefully honed content viewers will never see. "You don't want to find yourself in a 10-pilot-to-1-show kind of ratio," NBC's Salke said.

Now, there is also an additional fear that the industry's best writers and producers will take their work to Netflix or Amazon, where they can be free of the onerous creative and time constraints that surround network TV.

"There's a lot of opportunity for creative talent in our business now," said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler.

Borrowing a page from their cable and online video rivals, the legacy broadcast executives at CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox are now more willing to order fewer episodes and also back-burner shows to premiere at times outside the typical fall and midseason launch dates.

"It makes no sense for all the networks [to be] ordering and casting shows over a span of a few months," said Brad Adgate, analyst for New York-based ad firm Horizon Media. "Spreading it out across the entire year makes more sense."

Pilots may well be headed for extinction, but their funeral march probably won't be played for years yet. They are still seen by some executives and producers as a way to impose a creative discipline on a fuzzy concept and quickly expose problems in casting or storytelling.

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Salke points to NBC's James Spader crime caper "The Blacklist." The premise, about a criminal who turns himself in to help solve crimes, initially sounded creaky to executives, who had heard many such pitches before.

They got excited only after they saw how Spader and company manipulated the material in the pilot. The series has since become a hit.

"We wouldn't have had 'The Blacklist' had we not made it into a pilot," Salke said. "These shows take awhile to find themselves. A pilot is a great learning tool."

Paul Lee, president of the ABC Entertainment Group, thinks the hype about crushing pilot season is oversold.

"We move away from it a bit more every year, but not so dramatically that we're ready to kill pilot season," he said.

Advertisers can be somewhat leery of changing the process because the status quo gives them a lot of power over programming. Pilot season, after all, culminates in the "upfronts," a TV rite in New York every May where executives try to woo media buyers with their new fall lineups.

"This model still works for them," CBS' Tassler said of Madison Avenue.

Other experts, meanwhile, say that network TV is so locked to traditional ways of making and marketing shows that a transformation of the pilot process will take many years, not just one or two.

Even Fox executives say that turning away from a development calendar that has grown deeply entrenched for more than half a century will take a lot of time and effort. "Right now, we're having to will this to happen," said Joe Earley, chief operating officer at Fox Broadcasting.

scott.collins@latimes.com

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