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How COVID-19 Affects Pilot Season

Pilot season has been at an all-time low during the pandemic.

Pilot season 2022 was unlike any in recent memory. Production was down, script buys were way down, and series orders were at an all-time low. After the 2020 shutdown, Hollywood has struggled to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

The issues here are far more complex than simple COVID-19 protocols. Television has been in a state of flux for the last decade. The rise of streaming services, binge watching, and full season drops have dramatically affected the TV landscape. COVID-19 has only made things worse.

Throughout this article series, we have covered how the pandemic has changed every aspect of Hollywood. From set organization to budgets, from cast management to streaming, COVID-19 has changed everything. This is equally, if not more so, true for pilot season.

To help you understand the issues surrounding pilot season, we have divided this article into four sections:

  • Pilot season: a primer
  • Impact of streaming
  • Impact of COVID-19
  • A last ray of hope for a dying tradition

Before we look at how the pandemic has affected pilot season, let us take a moment to understand what we are talking about when we talk about pilot season.

Pilot Season: A Primer

Traditionally, pilot season is a four-month period between January and April where the major television networks produce single episodes of a bunch of potential new television series. These single episodes are called “pilots.” Think “pilot program” not “jet pilot.” These test episodes allow the networks to ascertain if the concept of a given show works.

The major networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, The CW – then evaluate these pilots and choose which ones will “go to series.” The lucky few picked to go to series get a “series order” of, usually, anywhere from 10 to 22 episodes. Production on those shows begins almost at once, with shows ready to air for the fall season.

How It Works

The process actually begins in the summer when network executives hear pitches for potential television shows. If they like a pitch, they hire a writer (most often the one who pitched them, but not always) to draft a script based on the successful pitch. Rewrites and revisions usually continue until December with pilots ordered in January and series orders typically coming in May.

In non-pandemic, non-streaming days, each major network would hear well over 500 pitches and buy upwards of 100 scripts. From those, they would each make around 20 pilots and order only a handful of series. According to Jon Nathanson of Pricenomics, a script has a 20% chance of becoming a pilot and a 6% chance airing on television.

Why It Works That Way

The process of funding a television show is complex and Hollywood accounting is famously opaque. To put it as simply and succinctly as possible, networks go into the red to make television shows and don’t go into the black until they have sold advertising.

To sell advertising, the networks must convince major advertisers that the network’s shows are a perfect fit for the advertiser’s target audience. This process is also quite complex, but it usually begins and ends with the “upfronts.”

Upfronts began in the 1960s as meetings between network execs and marketers and have grown into massive events with Broadway caliber production designs and Michelin-Star catering. Typically, upfronts take place the third week in May in New York City.

At the upfronts, the networks showcase their fall lineups. These lineups include the new pilots that have gone to series. Advertisers then buy commercial time on those networks. Ad buys typically continue from upfronts to the fourth of July. According to Vulture, 80% of total television ad sales happen during the upfronts window.

Like farmers – who spend money to plant and tend crops only to recoup that investment with profits come harvest time – network television spends money to make money.

All of this is due to the television season.

The Television Season

Television is seasonal (or used to be, we will get to this in a moment). The television season begins in the fall and runs until December when there is a mid-season break. The season continues in January and runs until the late spring. Summer is television’s time off.

So, in order to successfully launch their season in the fall, networks begin a year out, ordering scripts. They fine tune those scripts until December, order pilots in January, shoot and test those pilots till April, order series in May, and present those new shows – along with all their returning hits – to advertisers at the upfronts in late May.

With their balance sheets back in the black, networks can comfortably continue producing the rest of that season’s shows and episodes.

That is how television pilot season traditionally worked, before streaming. Let’s look at how streaming changed pilot season.

Impact of Streaming

Once upon a time, everyone watched the same show on the same night. Then they would spend the week talking about it, building their collective anticipation for next week’s episode. This strange-sounding era was only about a decade ago.

An equivalent amount of time before that, it was practically impossible to watch an episode you missed. It might have taken years for it to appear in syndication.

DVDs were the baby steps, letting people own whole seasons of their favorite shows. Then came DVRs which allowed someone to record an episode they would have otherwise missed.

In the early days of streaming, Netflix replaced DVDs by offering an enormous back catalog of other people’s televisions shows and Hulu replaced DVRs by allowing people to watch episodes a few days after they aired.

But none of that made much of a change to the television landscape until the arrival of streamer-produced original content. Once Netflix – and the growing armada of streaming services – began making their own television shows, television as we knew it ended.

There are many reasons streaming upending the industry, but we want to highlight three:

  1. No Season Calendar: Streaming services had no reason to wait until the fall to premier their new shows. They weren’t beholden to advertising dollars and began dropping new shows whenever their internal numbers suggested they would get the most views. As streaming began producing a steadier flow of content, the idea of a seasonal television calendar began to look increasingly obsolete.
  2. The Rise of Binging: From the very beginning, Netflix made every episode of their scripted television shows available to subscribers on the same day. This eroded the weekly water cooler chat and led to a massive increase in binge watching. Among other effects, this further diluted the traditional structure of television production.
  3. A Land without Pilots: In the streaming world, there are no pilots. Streaming services have followed Netflix’s lead and simply order full seasons, often from only hearing pitches. The insatiable appetite for content led streaming services to bypass the pilot process altogether. So while there are more shows than ever before right now, we see a record-low number of pilots.

These three factors have led the major networks to adjust their strategies. In response, the industry has seen a rise in straight-to-series orders from the major networks and a gradual broadening of the network television release calendar. Shows are now premiering year-round.

This has led to far fewer pilots. In 2012 – the year before House of Cards premiered on Netflix – there were 98 pilots ordered by the major networks and an additional 88 from cable networks. This combined 186 pilots set the record for most pilots in a single year, ever. Pilots have declined every year since.

COVID-19 put this decline in overdrive.

Impact of COVID-19

The pandemic stopped us all in our tracks. The coronavirus arrived in 2020, cancelled pilot season mid-stream, stopped all production industry-wide, and led to a near-global economic shut down.

2020 saw 60 pilots ordered, down from 66 the year prior. But only 40 of those sixty shows were actually produced. Twenty were held over until 2021, inflating last year’s total from 25 to 45. Those twenty hold-over shows served to hide the true impact of the pandemic on pilot season.

In truth, last year was the nadir. This year there were 35 pilots ordered. That ten-show increase is evidence that the television industry is pulling itself out of the hole and learning to adapt to pandemic production life.

But thirty-five is a truly devastating number when compared to years past when that number hovered around one hundred. In the last decade, pilot season went from ninety-eight to thirty-five pilots; halved first by streaming from 2012-2020 and halved again by COVID-19 these last two years.

While it would be easy to attribute all of these losses to the pandemic, the truth is the television ecosystem was already struggling to survive intact. The coronavirus hastened trends that had already infected the process. And television is not alone in this.

The movie world has seen much the same happen. For the last decade, distributors and movie theaters have been at loggerheads over what to make of video on demand and streaming. Just like the shrinking theatrical distribution window for feature films was sped up by COVID-19, the network television industry has seen erosive trends in pilot season fast-laned by the pandemic.

The coronavirus’s legacy here is akin to a wrecking ball to an already derelict building. It was on its way down anyway. Or so it seemed.

A Last Ray of Hope for a Dying Tradition

While COVID-19 shut down production industry-wide, streaming has had a more significant, long-term impact on how television shows are made. The arrival of streaming, and especially streamer-produced content, has been eroding pilot season for a decade now.

Gone are the days of water-cooler television and monoculture. For better or worse, streaming has split us all up into little algorithm-sifted micro groups. Not only are we not all watching the same shows, but we also aren’t watching them at the same time.

While some of us tune in to new shows the minute they drop on our favorite streaming platform, others of us prefer to spend time in older worlds, commiserating with the casts of Cheers and St. Elsewhere, The West Wing and Golden Girls, Sex & the City and Friends.

Pilot season looks to be rebounding from the damage and shock of the pandemic. But the million – potentially billion – dollar question is, “will it recover from the changes brought by streaming?”

Until last week, that answer looked to be “no.” But after Netflix’s financial and subscriber issues, the television landscape looks to be on the cusp of even more change. And who knows, it might just bring about the return of pilot season.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

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