An Industry of Failure: How Your TV Show Can Fail (and Why You Shouldn’t Be Worried)

how hollywood works: TV

Failure is something that everyone in television gets used to — they don’t have a choice.

According to Noah Hawley, showrunner of the canceled MY GENERATION, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, approximately 92% of all shows fail. It’s like buying a lotto ticket, except before you’re allowed to purchase, you must spend years working to prove you’re serious about your scratch-offs.

3 Ways a Show Can Fail Before It Gets on Screen

1. The Pitch Doesn’t Sell

The first way a show fails is that a network or studio exec passes on the pitch in the fall.

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This means they didn’t request the project’s script. They didn’t like the idea enough to read how the world will take shape. This is pretty commonplace in the industry, considering execs hear hundreds of pitches and only request scripts for 70-80 of them.

2. The Script Isn’t Pilot-Worthy

The second way a show fails is that the network or studio passes on the script.

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The execs liked your pitch enough to request a pilot script, but after reading it theydecide not to go forward with shooting the pilot. Again, this is common; networks typically only order about 20 pilots each season.

3. The Pilot Isn’t Worth a Season

The third way a show fails is the network passes on the pilot.

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This comes after you’ve spent all that time and energy from January to April casting, shooting, editing, and polishing your pilot… only to have the network pass on the series before upfront presentations in May.

It’s like getting stood up for prom after you’ve rented your tux or bought your dress.

Remember that hyped up BIONIC WOMAN pilot in 2007?

Or the Jack Black and Owen Wilson comedy pilot HEAT VISION AND JACK in 1999, directed by Ben Stiller?

No? That’s because both were axed.

Pilots aren’t the only projects to suffer this fate. Were you looking forward to seeing Fox’s epic Egyptian drama, HIEROGLYPH, which was a straight-to-series (link to straight to series post) order, this fall? Sorry, that got nixed too.

Nobody likes to hear the odds are stacked astronomically against them. But here’s the good news, people: you’re going to be just fine.

3 Reasons Why Failure’s Okay in the TV Business

1. You’re Still Making Money

An industry is still an industry, and people need to be paid for their labors. This means in television, paychecks aren’t based on whether your project makes it onto prime time or not. If they were, almost no one would get paid!

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With pilot scripts, writers can expect to make a minimum of $30,000 for a 30 minute script and $43,000 for a 60 minute script under the WGA Agreement, typically with bonuses if the script gets produced. These rates are negotiated by agents, of course, and successful series writers can easily command 6-figure paychecks just for the pilot script.

Not bad for a script that has a 90 percent chance of failing…

2. Dead Pilots Get Second Chances

While it is true that most pilots stay dead after a network passes on them, there have been cases where they’ve been brought back to life.

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These second chances come in different forms:

  • The same network tries a second time to get the original pilot picked up for series

  • A different network picks up the original pilot

  • The pilot collects dust for a few years, then gets greenlit when it fits a network’s needs

  • The pilot gets overhauled, redeveloped, and reshot

Examples include:

  • NBC’s show ABOUT A BOY, which was originally a pilot for Fox back in 2003 and then got dusted off for the 2013-2014 pilot season by NBC after Jason Katims of PARENTHOOD and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS wrote the new script

  • CBS’ hit show NUMBERS, whose pilot was initially rejected but was later reworked and aired

  • ABC’s hit UGLY BETTY, an adaptation of Colombian telenovela BETTY LA FEA, took producer Ben Silverman five years and three incarnations before it finally went to pilot

3. No One Cares That You’ve Failed

In a business where over 90% of all shows fail, there wouldn’t be a television industry if executives refused to work with creatives with failed projects under their belt. Writers and creatives need to prove their worth, but like superstar athletes, they don’t get benched for long for a few missed shots.

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The ego might suffer, but the reputation remains intact.

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