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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)