Since the dawn of television, pilots have ruled networks. Pilots are the first episode of any television show. This introduction to the audience matters a ton because you want to ingratiate the views, so they tune in week after week.
Today we're going to go over a traditional pilot season, the Amazon's version, and talk about how the rise of streaming and cable services have altered the idea.
What Is A Pilot?
A TV Pilot is a stand-alone episode of a series that is used to sell the series to a network. The pilot will run on television as the first episode of the series if it's picked up.
When Is Pilot Season?
Network pilot season typically runs from January to April of a given year. This is when major networks decide which of the pilot scripts they're purchased will be cast, shot, and given an order. We recently covered all the scripts sent directly to pilot for 2019. At this time, actors also get a lot of auditions during this period.
Because each new show needs a new cast. This is an excellent time for actors to get paid. And if their show is a hit, they might be in for a life-changing opportunity.
So how can you prepare?
Write a bunch of pilots. Or get your acting reel ready.
Or just make a ton of popcorn, because there's going to be a lot to watch.
Network Pilot Season
Typically, Networks buy dozens of projects every year and whittle their list down to the ones they think have the best shot to stay on the air. Since broadcast TV is still ruled by commercials, they need pilots that get people to stay and not change channels.
The more great shows they have, the more they can schedule them in order. That way, people don't change channels, and they can sell more add space. This matters, because the shows you pick up need to retain viewers throughout their run and generate ad revenue.
The reason it runs from January till April is that most TV shows debut in the fall. So Networks use the beginning of the year to cast, hire writers, and begin to stockpile scripts so that the pilots they pick can premiere on time.
But how do they chose which pilots make it to series?
What Are Upfronts?
In May, after the pilot season has whittled down what shows Networks want to pursue moving forward, Upfronts happen. Upfronts are when the Networks head to New York during the last weeks in May. They begin to announce their Fall schedules and add launch dates of their new shows. These announcements usually have clips or trailers to get people excited about them. This has taken off in the digital era, where these clips are shareable on Social Media.
The other part of Upfronts is the casualty section. It's when fans realize that some of their favorite shows may be entering their last season or not coming back at all.
I remember mailing Mars Bars to UPN to try to save Veronica Mars. That was my first Upfronts experience. It changed my life.
So why did the Networks chose May for Upfronts? It's based on advertising history. Again, commercial television makes its money through advertisers. Lots of those ads are about cars. New cars usually debut in the fall and need commercials at that time.
Thus, new TV also debuts in the fall. The season was born out of advertising and still rules network tv today. But times are changing.
But what about streaming and cable?
Amazon Pilot Season
Let's start with Amazon. They have no version of this idea.
That's right. There's no season for Amazon because they're not beholden to anyone for commercials or advertising revenue.
That gives them a ton of flexibility when it comes to debuting shows. In the past years, Amazon has brought several ideas to pilot. They track who's watching what, and made series orders based on that information.
That means while Amazon may make a dozen pilots, they only order three or four shows from them.
The radical thing is, Amazon leaves most of its pilots up for you to check out at any time. That provides a ton of useful information to anyone looking to write or study the show's pilots.
Amazon pilot season is year-round.
And it's the same for all digital and streaming channels.
Digital and Streaming
Whether you're Netflix, HBO, Hulu, or Crackle, you don't owe advertisers shows. That means that you can make your schedule and debut shows when it's the right time for you.
When Netflix announced the new season of Stranger Things would come out on July 4th, people had their fireworks ready. They knew that on that date all the episodes would be available and could be binged as they saw fit.
These streaming channels also have a habit of dropping all their content at once, which means people are not beholden to weekly views. That means they don't have the ability to milk one show for 22 or 24 weeks. Instead, they need to constantly churn out new content to keep people on their apps.
The pilot season for streaming content is a thing of the past. Instead, they have a year-long cycle of buying, developing, and debuting shows.
Plus, streaming channels are buying Network shows to also air on their content. While this may get someone interested in a show, like The Good Place, it also downgrades the urgency for anyone to watch during Network airings.
Streaming helped shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad find new fans in between seasons. That saved these shows and kept them on their networks. But that seems like an outlier. Many times the availability of a show on streaming means there's no urgency to watch live.
As Networks come of age with the Internet, a lot of content is going to change, and it may become a thing of the past.
I have no crystal ball, but I think we may shift back to the way things were when TV was created. Getting specific companies to sponsor specific shows. That means you'd have The Goldbergs, presented by Coke. and in the episode, you'd see Adam and company chugging their products at the local Wawa.
So... When Is Pilot Season?
It's kind of always....depending on who you ask and where you work.
I can't wait to stream your show!
Let us know what you think the future of pilot season is in the comments!