Straight-to-Series: The Pilot-Free Way of Making Television

how hollywood works: TV

Pilots have been the go-to in the television industry for forever. Networks still rely on them to determine what they air, even though the pilot system has a pitifully low batting average when it comes to success rates.

As Joe Earley at Fox said to Variety, it’s “machine-gun spray.”

But that’s all starting to change.

New players on the field are changing the game by turning to a different type of series order: the straight-to series order.

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ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, HOUSE OF CARDS, UNDER THE DOME, and THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW are all straight-to-series orders

The Success of Straight-to-Series

In the last few years, Netflix and cable networks like WGN and A&E have changed the television game by commissioning straight-to-series projects that have gone on to be highly successful. In other words, they’re making commitments to buy — and air — entire 10-13 episode series right off the bat, all without ever seeing a pilot.

It’s like proposing to someone on OkCupid based on her online profile. Would you make a long-term commitment without a first date?

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Netflix has had particular success with the straight-to-series model with projects HOUSE OF CARDS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. A&E and WGN haven’t done too badly either, with A&E ordering BATES MOTEL straight-to-series and WGN doing the same with SALEM.

Their success has not gone unnoticed by the prime time networks, and for the 2014-2015 season NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC, and the CW have ordered fifteen straight-to-series projects in total between them.

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Leading the charge for the 2014-2015 season is Fox, with seven straight-to-series commitments including the highly anticipated Batman prequel GOTHAM and the now-cancelled Egyptian epic HIEROGLYPH. This is part of former chair Kevin Reilly’s plan to steer his network away from the pilot cycle, which he described in THR as “silly,” and towards a system that is:

1. A better creative process

2. Can offer a higher success yield.

The Superiority of Straight-to-Series Orders

Here are a few reasons why some networks and creatives are making the switch from pilot orders to straight-to-series orders:

1. They Give Creatives More Time To Do Their Thing

Creatives aren’t under pressure-cooker deadlines in the straight-to-series model like they are with pilots. Instead of rushing to churn scripts out on a schedule that leaves little breathing room, creatives can take their time and get everything right.

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Additionally, the straight-to-series format allows creatives to break away from the pilot structure and write the show that they want to write. Kevin Spacey, in a speech for the 2013 Edinburgh International Television Festival, credits Netflix for letting him, David Fincher, and Beau Willimon break away from this structure.

According to Spacey, they “wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell. [They] were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would take space to play out.”

2. They Attract the Big Stars

A series commitment by networks is a big draw for high-level actors. Many are interested in making the switch from film to television, but don’t want to waste their time on a failed pilot.

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Halle Berry

Straight-to-series orders eliminate that hurdle, guaranteeing stars an on-air commitment. This means we get to see more heavy hitters like Halle Berry signing on to the sci-fi series EXTANT on CBS.

Other examples include Vera Farmiga in A&E’s BATES MOTEL, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS, and Laurence Fishburne and Mads Mikkelsen in NBC’s HANNIBAL.

3. Save Money By Having Fewer Flops

Pilots can be a huge waste of money for networks. In that same Edinburgh speech, Kevin Spacey says that networks flush between $300 and $400 million dollars away on pilots every year, the vast majority of which never see the light of day.

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Straight-to-series orders cut down on network costs by tens of millions of dollars. Rather than “machine gun spraying” their budget on dozens of pilots that will most likely fail, networks are laser-focusing their money on a few projects they believe will succeed.

The Downside to Straight-to-Series

There’s a downside to this gamble:

What if the series does flop?

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It’s not just $4 million for one pilot episode down the drain: it’s $30 million for 13 episodes. Rather than losing on a bunch of small bets, the network loses on one BIG bet.

It’s the difference between scattering your chips across 18 different bets… or putting it all down on a single-hand.

This has been the primary cause for networks’ reluctance to commit to straight-to-series orders and why the pilot system has persisted for as long as it has. Under the pilot system, as Reilly put in an interview with Vulture, networks think they’re hedging their bets by only committing to pilots rather than entire series, because “it’s the least amount [of money] you can commit on [a project.”

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There are several cases in which networks gambled on a straight-to-series project and lost:

  • THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW on NBC, which was cancelled after 15 of its scheduled 22 episodes aired, in large part because of low ratings and waning interests.

  • Fox’s sci-fi drama TERRA NOVA, an expensive investment reportedly costing around 100 million pounds (more than $171 million)… canceled after one season.

  • Fox’s highly anticipated Ancient Egypt drama HIEROGLYPH, which was cancelled before it even made it on air due to “creative issues during development.”

These flops soured networks to the straight-to-series approach and made them reluctant to invest so heavily in only one project without any assurances, which is why straight-to-series orders are still the exception in Hollywood.

Though straight-to-series orders won’t be doing away with pilots and pilot season any time soon, they are shaking up the industry and offering creatives and networks a new alternative to the old way of doing things.

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