What You Need to Know About Pilot Season

how hollywood works: TV

You got an amazing idea for a television show.

You got it in front of the right people at the studios and networks.

They agree it’s great. Hard part over, right? Time to binge watch GAME OF THRONES or re-watch HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, right?

Wrong. Unless you’re one of the lucky few to get a straight-to-series order, you now need to get ready for the most stressful months in the television industry: pilot season.

tv pilot season

What Is Pilot Season?

Pilot season is the busiest season in the industry that viewers never get to see.

Officially lasting from January through May (though really it starts in the summer), pilot season is when pilots for the upcoming season are ordered, made, and then either “picked up,” i.e. made into a series, or scrapped. That means A LOT of work needs to get done in a relatively short period of time, all of which determines whether or not a project makes it onto your TV or not.

Here’s a timeline that breaks it all down, which we go into more depth in in our section How Television Pilots Are Made:

Summer Through Fall: Executives Pick Pitches and Scripts

Every summer, network and studio executives hear upwards of 500 pitches for potential new pilots.

Execs determine which of these pitches they like and could see the network ordering in the fall, and then order pilot scripts to be written for each of those picked up pitches. Each network typically orders around 70 scripts, which need to be completed and on their desks like gift wrapped presents before the holiday season starts.

script pile

Over “break” (the 2-week period starting at the end of December when Hollywood shuts down) executives take these scripts home to read.

January: Pilots Are Ordered

In January, execs return from break and spend the first weeks meeting to discuss the scripts. It’s like returning to school after the holiday and comparing new toys and clothes: what’s loved, what’s hated, and what can’t be returned no matter how awful it is.

Execs discuss things like creative and staffing issues, what projects fit best in the programming line up, and whose projects they can’t afford to reject because of their clout in the industry. These talks narrow the field further, until finally between 20 and 30 scripts per network are chosen for pilot orders, which execs hope will determine what shows are on television one, three, even (they pray!) five years down the line.

arrested-development-pilot-script 

February Through April: Pilots Are Cast and Shot

February through April, people find out if they’re working, and on what. The giant machine that is the Hollywood television industry churns to life as actors, writers, physical production, and even caterers start getting calls for pilot jobs.

Once a pilot gets a network’s greenlight, creatives spend the next few months scrambling to make said pilot. Springtime in Hollywood is a madhouse as creatives assemble production teams and cast their pilots, all while competing creatives do the same.

Casting directors, directors, and actors are hired in February and March, and then the pilot is shot typically some time in March or April.

US_Navy_050125-N-0685S-001_Crewmembers_for_the_hit_television_show_JAG_set_up_for_the_next_shot_outside_the_Transient_Aircraft_Line_on_board_Naval_Air_Station_North_Island,_Calif

May: Decisions Are Made

In May, everyone finds out whether they have a job this television season. It’s like getting into college: you got the grades, did the extracurriculars, submitted applications, and now you wait to find out if you’re going to your dream school… or community college.

After the pilot is edited, the final cut is delivered to the networks, and the waiting begins. Creatives spend weeks compulsively checking the trades and harassing their friends in the industry trying to glean information on the status of their shows and their future employment status.

As Craig Thomas, showrunner for HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER PUT IT, put it, “It’s like you’re back in high school, and you want to hear any bit of gossip about yourself or other shows.”

Network execs start seriously watching the pilots a week or two before the May upfront presentations, then start ordering these pilots to series. They announce these orders right before upfronts, sometimes only hours beforehand.

Thumbs-Up-Thumbs-Down

Few make the final cut, and the whole experience is like watching your favorite contestants being voted off the island or booted out of the house. Orders for the 2014-2015 season ranged from 5 series orders at The CW, to 16 at NBC. Those that don’t make it are dead pilots, which we talk about more here.

The orders are announced along with prime time schedules, and then the pilots are aired for advertisers in the third week of May during upfront presentations in New York, where marketers buy up commercial air time “up front,” (think: like a pre-sale on advertising at discounted rates.)

7 comments… add one

  • Bruna Skrzypek

    Hi!

    I just found out your site and I really wanted to thank you for writing it! It is really helping me to understand how tv industry works, specially since I’m from Brazil and things work different from USA.

    Best,
    Bruna

    • Chris Ming

      Hi Bruna, glad you liked it! I imagine so many things would be different… yet very much the same, also 🙂

      Thanks so much for reading and if you ever have any other questions, you can always email me.

  • Lily

    How do you find out if a pilot is rejected or picked up to series? If you’re an actor do you find out from your agent? Deadline mentioned that my pilot is being redeveloped but I haven’t heard from my agent or the people from the pilot. Is deadline accurate?

    • Chris Ming

      Deadline is on top of things pretty consistently but always look to your agent for what you need to know and do.

  • Ash

    Hi
    This was helpful!! I was wondering how you get to be able pitch your idea to people.

    • Chris Ming

      Hi Ash, a lot of hard work. In general, get to LA, get to work proving it to people you’re the sort of person who can add value and whose ideas should be taken seriously. Show you can execute those ideas (by writing scripts, shooting shorts or pitches, making videos, etc.) and you’re on your way.

  • Domanique Rowe

    I am a Producer for a Reality Based TV Series, I am looking to hopefully be picked up by a network or studio. I have a pilot available for review. I would ask for assistance to direct me towards the next step of success!!

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