I chatted with Terry O’Bright–CEO of PilotTV.net–and he offered some fascinating insights into the development of television pilots and network decision-making in general. For those unfamiliar with it, a pilot is the first produced episode of a show and the one often used to convince the network executives to greenlight it to series. Terry has worked in the television industry as a re-recording sound mixer for thirty years and taken part in the production of hundreds of pilots including those for Life on Mars, Bones, and The Ghost Whisperer. But on his PilotTV website, he has noted his frustration with the process:
The Studios and Networks decide when and what they pick up and turn into a series. It seemed like a random procedure. Even when they do greenlight a Pilot and it becomes a series, the show is pulled and cancelled after only two or three airings.
He decided to create PilotTV–which is a website and Roku channel–as an outlet for those pilots that the general audiences never get to see. His idea was to “put a TV channel together and have an audience decide what is good and what isn’t before a Studio and Network spends millions of dollars producing a show that they end up just cancelling.” And that is becoming a reality as PilotTV offers hundreds of pilots from past shows–some never before seen–and they are beginning to offer new pilots that could ultimately turn into ongoing shows if they grab the general public’s interest (you can get a glimpse at some of the site’s upcoming offerings at this link and you can sign up for a free trial membership at this link).
I took the opportunity to talk further with Terry about the pilot process, network decision-making, and how he sees things changing in the coming years:
Cancelled Sci Fi: Can you give a rough estimate of the cost of a pilot for the broadcast networks and for the cable channels?
Terry O’Bright: Cost of creating a Pilot varies. I do know that more money is spent on a Pilot nowadays then in the past. There seems to be a lot more at stake with the Networks. A successful Pilot can make or break a creator’s career. Network’s also seem to want a guarantee, they want to invest in a Pilot’s creation and want to know it will be popular with viewer’s. But nobody can predict what a consumer wants to watch and not watch. We went through this cycle of reality television, because it is a lot cheaper to produce. There’s a bigger payoff to the little investment.
CSF: How often is the pickup of a pilot driven by the names attached to it (J.J. Abrams, Chuck Lorre, Kiefer Sutherland) and/or industry connections and what are the chances that a newcomer to television can interest a network in an idea for a pilot?
TO: Unfortunately in the Movie Business, a big name will influence a Network on whether they pick up a show or not. I say unfortunately because there are some great creative newcomers that aren’t given a chance because a Network will first look at the JJ Abrams, Chuck Lorre’s and Kiefer Sutherland’s. I want Pilot TV Network to change how the TV business is done. I want everyone on an equal footing. Let’s make great Television based on it’s content and not on who’s involved. A newcomer can easily get their show seen, with Pilot TV’s help.
CSF: These days, pilots are an expensive gamble that often go generally unseen, yet previously networks often ran them as movies of the week to gauge viewer interest before committing to a series (Man from Atlantis, Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, and many others started this way). Why has that model been pretty much abandoned?
TO: I kind of touched on this point in point 2, but it’s very expensive to produce a show now. In day’s past a studio really controlled costs. Everybody was under contract with a studio, so it was easier for the studio to predict how much a production would cost. Nowadays with agents and actors becoming producers, costs have skyrocketed. To make a movie that could become a Pilot, you would need everybody involved to agree to it, future salaries would be figured into this. Then unfortunately if the movie tanks on its airing, the show might be scrubbed. Part of the issue, is that there’s so many Cable and TV Stations now, that viewers have 1000’s of choices of what to watch. The irony is that there’s so much that’s on that isn’t any good. Live television is turning into on demand, that’s our future. The consumer has the ability now to watch what they want to watch and when they want to watch it.
CSF: Seeing as it is expensive to shoot a pilot and start up a new series, why are networks so quick to cancel a show (throwing away the millions they have already sunk into it) and start over again rather than give it time to build an audience (i.e., both Almost Human and Dracula had decent numbers for their timeslots this past season, yet both were dumped in favor of Gotham and Constantine respectively).
TO: I can tell by these questions you are very in touch with the Industry. You have to remember or at least know this, an hours worth of programming on a Network is work something. You can pick an amount, any amount. A Network will hype their line-up and charge Advertisers for that time slot. If viewership and the numbers aren’t there and aren’t there quickly a show will get pulled lighting fast in order to put in something, even a re-run that will increase the audience. In my personal opinion, if a Network really likes a show and really believes in a show, they need to give it a chance. If they don’t, then shows like Seinfeld, Baywatch and Breaking Bad would have been yanked 2 or 3 shows in.
CSF: The recently cancelled Almost Human seemed to get no respect from its network as the episodes were aired out of order and it faced many poor scheduling decisions. Do networks sometimes try to kill shows, and if so, is it driven by poor relations with the studios/production companies, personal vendettas, and/or just plain bad business decisions?
TO: Yes to everything you pointed out. I think there are some very bad Network decisions and very bad business choices. Part of a Network’s problem is that all the minions are trying to impress their bosses. Business in general runs like this. Also if you are at the top, as an Executive you are unwilling to give up your spot, because of the power and money that you are making. The time is so right, right now to change how Pilots are being created.
CSF: Amazon has made the pilots to the shows they have in development available to the public to view and vote on. Does this seem like a better model to you?
TO: Amazon is doing exactly what Pilot TV is trying to do. The difference is Amazon is huge and is involved in many different forms of business. I would love to have a partnership with companies like Amazon and Netflix where we broadcast their pilots and let Pilot TV Members vote on them. We can then go back to those companies and show them the numbers and where their global audience is more likely to be.
CSF: At PilotTV.net, where do you get the pilots that you air? Do you take suggestions from your viewers?
TO: Right now we are in negotiations with a lot of new Pilots and are trying to sell and market them. The producers of these Pilots aren’t willing to make them available to our members yet, but as we go along and they see that their shows are a tough sell, they will allow Pilot TV to broadcast them.
CSF: How hard is it to track down the unaired pilots or the ones for TV shows that had shorts runs and are now mostly forgotten?
TO: It’s hard to track down shows. I’m a huge consumer of TV, I love it. I grew up in Canada and with the long winters, I was very influenced with American television. All our stations were out of Buffalo. I can still quote Laverne and Shirley songs, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Flintstones, etc… not to mention commercials like Calgon’s Ancient Chinese Secret or Cordoba’s Fine Corinthian Leather.
CSF: Do you have a complete rundown somewhere of all the pilots you have aired?
TO: Pilot TV’s content is available to anyone and everyone. The only real set schedule is our weekly offerings which are for new members and for our monthly Silver Members. But as a Platinum Member, you have full access to what we current have in are archives, which is currently at 600 shows and growing.
In closing you have to know that Pilot TV Network is very specific and defined. I want people to post their shows on my Network rather than YouTube or Amazon or any other source, because our Business model is to create series and remove the risk that Networks feel they have. As a producer, wouldn’t you rather have your Pilot shown on Pilot TV Network where there’s a chance that it can become a series?
Sign up for a free trial membership at this link