Pilots Quickly Becoming a Thing of the Past

With the announcement from NBC’s CEO Jeff Zucker that the network will be canceling the hoary tradition of pilot season — that annual rite of passage in which the network produces dozens of initial episodes of possible shows to market test and show to advertisers in order to decide which ones it’ll pick up for a full season — a significant shift is being marked in the business model of television. While I’m sure this will just mean more American Gladiator-esque fare, as networks are hooked on mass appeal, I’m also taking it as a sign that the pilot-free model for web shows is on the right track.

Online, there isn’t really anything like a pilot. Shows can start humbly and grow organically. Irina Slutsky asked Eddie Codel to bring a video camera along to tech events to give them something to do, and Geek Entertainment TV was born. One look at Ask a Ninja‘s first episode and you wouldn’t necessarily have bet on it to become an industry leader. Lonelygirl15‘s origins were obscure enough that it took months before anyone discovered that it wasn’t just a girl, her webcam and a YouTube account.

Compared to the millions of dollars spent on a show that may never make it to air, not to mention the creative compromises wrought by meddling network executives armed with marketing research data (for a primer on the lunacy of pilot season, I recommend The TV Set), Zucker and other network executives are right that pilot season no longer makes much sense — just for the wrong reasons.

Survivor is both a good metaphor for how pilots get picked, as well as an example of why scripted series are falling by the wayside on network television. Real actors and writers are expensive, reality television less so. The WGA strike was cited as one reason to end the pilot season, though the $7 million an hour the Times reports it costs to produce new skeins suggests that the strike may be a convenient excuse.

But online, as long as you keep costs minimal, you can survive even with a fraction of the audience that a prime-time show must command — and if the creators score a hit, they can realize all the profits from DVDs, merchandise and syndication rather than simply getting a salary from the network and a small percentage of sales revenue through residuals. Comedy doesn’t have to be as broad, drama doesn’t have to be so melodramatic and you can potentially leverage your niche as a demographic fit for specific sponsors.

The only thing I’m going to miss about pilot season is the snob caché from having seen shows that never made it past the suits, such as the hilarious Heat Vison and Jack (which has had more life online that it was ever allowed over the air). If the new, online-driven model works out the way Ask a Ninja‘s Kent Nichols suggests it might, then we’ll all be better off for it.

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