WHEN THE television networks unveiled their new fall lineups last week, one thing became instantly clear: Programmers are about to try something they've never tried before.
Yes, I know that assertion practically writes its own punch line. But seriously, the 2008-09 season is going to be experimental in a way the caution-bound TV industry has never before seen.
That's because for the first time, because of the writers strike and changing attitudes among the network brass, several high-profile new series, such as NBC's "Kath & Kim" and Fox's "Dollhouse," landed on the schedules without a single frame of film having been shot as a pilot episode. Other shows made the cut after executives screened stripped-down "presentations" rather than completed pilots. The networks will be flying, if you will, even more blindly than usual.
This is a noteworthy shift, one that can tell us a lot about where the TV business stands these days.
For decades, pilots have been the chief instruments executives use to assess whether a writer-producer's concept can actually fly as a series. Among other things, this kind of development gives jittery programmers a fig leaf, something supposedly solid beyond their own guts ("I don't know why that series bombed -- test audiences loved the pilot!"). Is the process fail safe? Hardly. If it were, flop TV shows would not exist. Great pilots do not, alas, invariably lead to great series. But pilots have been like internal-combustion engines or barrel-loaded muskets -- the best bad idea until a better idea came along.
Not this year. Three NBC series -- the comedy "Kath & Kim" and the dramas "My Own Worst Enemy" and "The Philanthropist" -- were ordered straight to series with no pilot. Writer-producer Joss Whedon of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fame bypassed the pilot process in winning a midseason 13-episode order from Fox for "Dollhouse," his latest sci-fi drama. The CW's Tuesday drama "90210," an update on the old Aaron Spelling soap, likewise got the nod even though nothing has been shot (the network says it will make a full pilot this summer, although a spokesman said "90210" is on the schedule no matter what).
And other series received thumbs-ups after executives screened trimmed-down presentations instead of full pilots, such as CBS' midseason mystery "Harper's Island" (executives saw only a "cold open" that set up the show plus a brief trailer, about 15 minutes in total) and CW's teen soap "Surviving the Filthy Rich."
Clearly, the writers strike has a lot to do with the current turn of events. By the time the three-month walkout ended on Feb. 12, networks simply didn't have enough time to develop material as thoroughly as usual before revealing their plans to advertisers in spring.
But pilots are also at the center of a broad philosophical debate within the TV industry. Some very important -- or at least, well-paid -- voices are beginning to wonder whether in an era of diminished audiences and ever-increasing paths of distribution, pilots have outlived their usefulness and simply become an expensive artifact of a bygone era.
As this column previously noted, NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker caused a stir in the TV business this winter with a trade-show address that took aim at many of the industry's established practices. He unloaded heavily on the pilot process, which he criticized as wasteful and ineffective.
Zucker totaled up the depressing math: Last year the networks cumulatively spent more than $500 million developing new series and pilots. Eighty pilots were made. He reckoned that at most, eight of those led to series that would be likely to come back for a second season. "And of those eight, none could be considered a big success," he said. "Why not have the courage of our convictions and order series straight to air, just as we do now on the reality side?"
Zucker's rich surplus of self-confidence is a durable feature of his public persona, and his speech had a Moses-down-from-the-mountain quality that irritated many colleagues. ("He's a visionary, that guy," one studio executive remarked sarcastically when I mentioned Zucker's address.)
But NBC isn't the only place taking a second look at super-expensive development procedures. CBS has publicly stated that it's not necessary to spend heavily to get a sense of whether a show can work, and noted that it saved $70 million in the fourth quarter of last year alone through reduced pilot development costs.
The down-with-pilots movement exasperates other network chiefs, though. During his schedule presentation to advertisers in New York last week, ABC's Steve McPherson launched an impassioned defense of the pilot-based approach, calling it "the R&D; of our business."
"If I was running a car company and I decided I was going to produce 700,000 cars from a sketch, just a concept, an idea and nothing more, with no prototype, no research, no additional strategy -- it makes no sense," McPherson told the crowd. "Shows like 'Lost' and 'Grey's Anatomy' wouldn't exist today without the development process."
So, who's right? The answer may not be clear-cut. Zucker is correct when he says that the pilot process has led to many expensive failures that "never see the light of day." But as McPherson argues, it's unreasonable to expect many great series to blossom without an R&D; phase that involves a lot of misfires, snafus and heartbreak. That's what happens with novels, plays, movies and, yes, cars. Why should TV shows be any different?
Yet there may be lots of ways to approach development without shelling out $10 million for a pilot. It's really a case-by-case decision. Some projects may not require the full Monty -- especially those, like "Kath & Kim," that already exist in overseas versions. Others may look great on the page, but there may be no way to evaluate the series prospects until you see how the director, cast and crew interpret the material.
What matters more than programmers' attitude toward pilots is their attitude toward, well, programming in general. To be successful over the long term, programmers have to be passionate about great shows. Sometimes they seem much more preoccupied with the state of the industry than with what makes the industry run, which is . . . great shows.
To me, the great pilot debate seems like the self-conscious vibrations of another media business rattled by audience declines and technological change.
So if executives need a manifesto, here's one: Viewers don't care what a network's business model is. They don't care how many media "platforms" the programs are on. They won't notice whether a network makes a lavish pilot or orders straight to series based on a treatment communicated telepathically from a guru in an ashram. Viewers just want good shows. Will they always line up for them? No. But good shows have better odds than lousy ones.
And as for the groundbreaking question of whether you can really make hits without shooting pilots? Well, we're all about to find out.
Channel Island runs every Monday in Calendar. firstname.lastname@example.org.