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Television pilots that crash and burn

You could have seen Keifer Sutherland in a small screen ‘L.A. Confidential’
/ Source: Forbes

A single mother turned bounty hunter. A small town facing a natural disaster. A man who loses his memory for an hour every day.

Sound like compelling television? Network executives thought it did — or at least they did five months ago. But there's a good chance viewers will never get to find out for themselves.

This is the week the broadcast networks put on their “upfronts” in New York City — a series of hype-heavy presentations where they parade their wares in front of advertisers in hopes of convincing them to spend billions.

But though the networks commission some 100 pilot episodes of new shows every year, at a cost of more than $300 million, they will only end up adding 30 or so to their 2006-07 schedules. That means shows like “Julie Reno, Bounty Hunter,” which News Corp.'s Fox ordered up this year, Jericho, which CBS commissioned, and “Sixty Minute Man,” which The Walt Disney Company's ABC paid for, may never be seen by the viewing public.

A handful of shows find new life after the networks reject them. Several years ago, CBS ordered up Ed, a quirky drama created by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company, but ended up passing on it and handing the show over to General Electric's  NBC, where it ran for four seasons. A few others, like “Ethel is an Elephant,” about a photographer who lives with, um, an elephant, and “Heat Vision And Jack,” about a renegade astronaut and his talking motorcycle, have found audiences on the Internet or on television shows that celebrate failed television shows.

But despite efforts on the parts of the networks that pay for the pilots and the studios that make them, pilot season remains an expensive exercise in futility: Lots of time, money and effort is spent creating entertainment that no one will ever see.

“It's not until you sit in a room and watch the show that you know whether it works or not,” says Scott Arnovitz, senior vice president of TV packaging at talent agency International Creative Management. “Great pilots are the convergence of a great script, great casting and great direction. And unfortunately, you don't know whether those three things come together until they're actually made.”

While the timing may change slightly, the pilot process remains the same year after year. The networks spend the fall months listening to several hundred pitches and ordering a few hundred to return as scripts. In January, the networks give the go-ahead to film a pilot to some 100 scripts. Over the next five months, those pilots are cast, filmed and delivered back to the networks, where they are screened, tested and heavily debated.

The networks make their final decision in mid-May, sometimes waiting until the day before their advertising presentation to make up their minds. In the meantime, millions have been spent on each show they've ordered: A half-hour comedy pilot can cost $3 million to make, and an hour drama can run as much as $6 million.

Television economics, which are convoluted to begin with, get even more twisted during pilot season, when networks and studios spend more on shows no one may ever see than they do on their regular programming.

One reason is that pilots start from scratch, so some costs that would normally be spread out over 22 episodes — like building sets — get condensed into one show. An average pilot will employ 150 people, according to FilmLA, a nonprofit film-permit agency. But costs also ratchet up because the show's producers want to make a good impression.

“Pilots are your sales tools, so you're going to blow up buildings and have helicopters and do all kinds of crazy things,” says Jim Sharp, executive vice president of production at News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox studio, which makes shows for both the Fox network and rival broadcasters. “On the episodes, you're going to be a little less ambitious.”

But it's more than automobiles and explosions that will cost big bucks this pilot season. The networks and studios paid a premium — sometimes more than $1 million above normal costs — for big name actors, directors and producers.

“It's a mad rush,” says Kim Miscia of Bowling/Miscia Casting, which filled the ranks of NBC's Medium. “Everyone's going after the same talent all at once.”

This year's pilot roster includes Ted Danson, Tina Fey, Calista Flockhart, Elton John, Spike Lee, John Lithgow, Amanda Peet, Matthew Perry and James Woods, none of whom come cheap.

Networks typically pay about half of a pilot's cost, while producers gamble and put up the rest. That means they're typically losing millions each year and won't recoup any of it unless a show makes it into syndicated repeats, typically after four years — something only about 15% do.

“We are in the hit business,” explains 20th Century Fox's Sharp. “You've got to make sure that once in a while you make a hit, otherwise you can actually go out of business in a couple of years.”