“Do you know what the business model is in the entertainment industry? Make 10 shows and hope that one of them works,” huffed Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) to put-upon producer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in a recent episode. “We produce more failed pilots than the French air force!”
Many flesh-and-blood executives share similar misgivings about pilot season, which after more than a half-century remains a sacred but extravagant custom of the TV biz.
By January of each season, scripts for dozens of pilots for prospective TV series are approved for production by the five broadcast networks. Each is bucking for a berth on the lineup next season. Then, during “upfront” week in mid-May, this frantic process is resolved when the networks announce their schedules.
Only a handful of new shows win a slot. The rest become landfill.
This year, nearly 90 pilots for scripted shows are in vying for a network home.
Among them are period shows such as “Pan Am,” a glamorous soap about airline stewardesses in the mid-1960s, and “Poe,” a whodunit set in the mid-1840s with Edgar Allan Poe as a writer-detective (both for ABC), and, for NBC, a melodrama set in Chicago at the Playboy Club during the 1960s heyday of sexual liberation.
Among the many supernatural series candidates, CW’s “Awakening” centers on two sisters who are on opposite sides of a zombie uprising.
Series veteran Jimmy Smits could be back as a detective (“Metro,” NBC). “Home Improvement” star Tim Allen seeks a sitcom comeback on ABC still agitating about malehood (“The Last Days of Man”). Kiefer Sutherland could return as a father with an autistic son who can predict the future (“Touch,” Fox). And one-time “Buffy” star Sarah Michelle Geller would be a woman on the run who seeks refuge by inhabiting the identity of her twin sister, with unforeseen results (“Ringer,” CBS).
Or maybe none of these shows will get a network nod. Before you get too excited about any of them, remember that the vast majority of pilots will go unseen and unmourned by the audience for which they were intended.
“The interesting thing about pilot season is, how it makes no sense whatever.”
That’s not make-believe exec Jack Donaghy speaking. It’s real-life writer-producer Peter Tolan, whose past credits include “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Job,” the films “Analyze This” and “Analyze That,” and the Denis Leary firefighters drama “Rescue Me” (whose final episodes will air on FX this summer).
Every stage of pilot season “has some aspect of insanity to it,” Tolan says with scarcely disguised wonder. And he should know. This go-around, he has not one but two pilots in the running.
Take the casting process, which for all these pilots happens all at the same time.
“You find you’re rather desperate to hire certain people, but all of a sudden four or five different shows want them, too,” Tolan says.
Few if any in the industry think the pilot system works very well. (For further evidence, just note the drought in breakout hits in recent seasons, and the traditional high attrition rate among each crop of freshman shows.) But no one has found a better way of creating and identifying shows that will succeed.
So what are you going to do?
One of Tolan’s pair of projects is a half-hour comedy for Fox called “Council of Dads.” Based on the best-seller by Bruce Feiler, this show would be about a guy who dies, but, beforehand, assembles a group of five men, including his father, to help his wife raise their kids _ “and hilarity ensues,” Tolan says. Kyle Bornheimer, Diane Farr and Ken Howard are in the cast.
The other comedy, for NBC, is called “The New World,” whose characters (including Ed Begley Jr. and Robbie Benson) are historical re-enactors at a theme park set in 1637.
“I was trying to think of the worst possible work situation I could,” explains Tolan, who, as with “Council,” wrote the pilot script and served as an executive producer.
He says most of “The New World” was shot outdoors (“We actually built a pilgrim village”) in the Los Angeles area, while “Council of Dads” was based at a studio facility nearby.
“I would be shooting one show and, a few steps away, there would be rehearsals of the other,” says Tolan by phone from his Santa Barbara, Calif., home. “I’d be shooting one of them while rewriting on that set the other one. There were a number of times I said, `Now which show is THIS?’”
Each pilot was delivered in late April to its network. There, each is being subjected to scrutiny by network execs and test audiences.
The morning of May 16, NBC will unveil its lineup. That afternoon, Fox will make its schedule known.
Tolan won’t find out yea-or-nay on either pilot until the eleventh hour. So right now, like hundreds of others in TV’s creative community, he waits to learn his fate in the pilot sweepstakes.
He’s making no forecasts, but says he will be grateful to get either one of them on the air: “Two would be great, but I don’t want to be greedy.”
And he says he’s not fretting.
“I guess that’s how I’ve been at it this long and survived. You have to remember it’s a game and not take it too seriously, or you’d tear your hair out.”
Sounds like a man who has figured out pilot season.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org