The process of making TV pilots every year may be a relic of the pre-Netflix era — but CBS isn't going to abandon it any time soon.
"Pilot season does work for us," CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler told reporters Wednesday morning at the TV press tour in Pasadena. "It's not perfect ... it certainly is a very difficult time …. [but] it's also exciting." Tassler said the "creative adrenaline" of pilot season had led to such hits as "The Big Bang Theory" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
Pilots — or more specifically, the season from December to May when pilots are ordered, made and then possibly get the green light for fall or midseason series — are a topic of hot debate in the TV industry right now. The process will win no awards for efficiency: Out of several dozen pilots made each spring, each network typically picks five or six new fall shows.
Earlier this week, Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly announced that his network would back away from the annual pilot orgy. Instead, Fox will order far fewer pilots and shepherd them more intensively through a longer creative process, he said.
"You don't throw 10 [pilots] at the wall and hope you come up with one," Reilly told reporters, adding that the current system "was built in a three-network monopoly when we had all the talent and the audience ... it is nothing short of a miracle that the talent is able to produce anything" worthwhile in such an environment.
A major impetus for Reilly's move is the increasing competition from cable and online providers such as Netflix and Amazon, which have contributed to an explosion of original programming the last few years. Broadcasters have had trouble competing amid such a glut, given that they have to fill at least two to three hours of prime time every night and thus are always feeding the pipeline.
However, CBS has a much older-skewing audience than Fox does, and has tended to be more conservative in its programming decisions. Also, CBS has less need for change: As Tassler reminded reporters, it is the No. 1 network in total viewers and often wins in advertiser-friendly demographic groups as well.
But while Tassler left little doubt that CBS isn't about to toss out pilot season, she left the door open to follow Reilly in the future: "I can appreciate where he's coming from," she said of her Fox counterpart's decision.
As usual, CBS seemed determined to emphasize stability, announcing that it was renewing its entire daytime lineup, including its chatfest "The Talk," the game show "The Price Is Right" and soaps "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful."
"It's a really profitable day part for us," Tassler said of the daytime shows. As for prime time, those decisions won't be made until May, when CBS and other networks announce their complete fall schedules.
But Tassler found herself on the defensive — again — for "Big Brother," the reality series that came under fire last summer after contestants were caught on tape making racist and homophobic comments. Tassler's boss, CBS chief Leslie Moonves, last summer called the remarks "absolutely appalling." "Big Brother" host Julie Chen, who is Moonves' wife, grilled Aaryn Gries, one of the contestants who had made the objectionable remarks, after she was booted from the house where the contestants live.
Tassler called "Big Brother" a "social experiment" and said the promise of conflict was one of the reasons people watched.
"We felt the producers handled [the racism controversy] responsibly, dealt with it as well as they could," Tassler said.