Right now, it's pilot season — which means you're going to be hearing about a lot of TV shows getting ordered. And then, nine months from now... most of those shows will not be on television. What is this mysterious crucible? Here's our step-by-step guide to the process of pitching a brand new television show.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Right about now, we ought to be in the middle of watching the first season of Hieroglyph, a show about gods in ancient Egypt that was "ordered to series" by Fox. But Fox pulled the plug on Hieroglyph, even after ordering a full season in advance, and we never even got to see it. That's just one extreme example of a more common phenomenon — to casual observers, it looks like things are getting ordered all the time, then never showing up.
So as the image above indicates, the process of getting a TV show through the studios and networks, and actually getting it on television, is much like what that piece of legislation goes through in the classic Schoolhouse Rock song, "I'm Just A Bill." Except with more filibustering, and constitutional crises, and vetos, and probably more government shutdowns. [Full disclosure: A TV show based on my story "Six Months, Three Days" is in development.]
To find out more about the many stages of the TV development process, we talked to some seasoned TV professionals — some of whom are quoted below, and some of whom asked to remain nameless. So here's a painstaking guide to the various stages of the TV development process, and all the jargon you're likely to hear. (This is slightly more geared towards the broadcast networks, because the cable channels have a less rigid annual schedule.)
So here goes:
This begins in June or July, for the broadcast networks. In a nutshell, you pitch a studio, and once you have studio backing, then you go to the network. Often, you'll pitch a producer first, and the producer will have a deal with a particular studio that he or she will bring the project to. On occasion, a producer can go straight to the network, skipping the studio — but networks like to know that a studio is backing a show, because that makes it more likely they'll actually get the show they ordered.
This process, from producer to studio to network, can take weeks — or it can go incredibly fast, if you have J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg on board as a producer, or if your show is based on a well-known comic book or beloved property.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of The Middleman and writer for Helix, explains:
It helps if you think of the studio as a bank. What they do, in the broadest and most essential sense, if advance a showrunner/show creator the money and resources to actually make the show in advance of the network paying their fees (networks basically "rent" shows for a premiere showing and a number of repeats. They also get a creative oversight because the fees they pay cover most of the show's cost. That much said, if the show costs more to make than what the network pays — which is most of the time — then the studio has to deficit finance those costs, so their interest is to make sure the show stays around long enough to be sold into syndication, which is where they bounce back from the deficit.
Sometimes a studio has corporate affiliation with a network (like Warner Bros. and The CW) which means they might try to place shows with that network. (Although Warner Bros. also makes Person of Interest, which is on CBS right now.) Sometimes a studio will give the "right of first refusal" to an affiliated network, before pitching elsewhere.
Also, sometimes a producer will have an exclusive deal with a particular studio, called an "overall deal," which means you only pitch to that studio or get assigned to work on that studio's projects.
With cable TV networks and things like Netflix, the process is much less standardized — some of them have a schedule that's similar to broadcast, while HBO is famous for taking years and years to develop a single show.
Everybody will have notes on your pitch. The studio will have stuff they want to see changed, and then the network will have its own concerns. Sometimes they disagree.
"Total agreement amongst all parties about a show's creative direction is more rare than an albino jackalope. Everyone will have their own take on the project and attempt to steer it in one direction or another," says Amy Berg, the creator of Capers who's also written for Eureka and Person of Interest.
One reason the network and the studio may disagree is because their interests are different, says Grillo-Marxuach:
The network's primary interest is to make shows that fit its brand and existing content. The studio's primary interest is to keep the show alive long enough for it to go into profit — sometimes those two things conflict: a network may want a darker, more nuanced show, and a studio may want a show with blue skies and car chases because those sell well internationally. A network may want a more serialized show, a studio may want more self-contained episodes because those are easier for casual viewers to enjoy and that makes for better secondary market sales.
But in the end, the network is the one who's buying the show — so in an argument between the studio and the network, the network will probably win.
Meanwhile, there are always too many cooks in the kitchen, trying to figure out how to make a pilot bulletproof and create something their bosses will like. This is how an original, quirky idea can slowly morph into a clone of House or X-Files, says one TV producer who asked not to be named.
So it's a lucky and talented showrunner who manages to steer a TV show between these different sets of priorities — and it's a rare TV show that makes it to air while still reflecting the original vision of the creator. If a "big name" producer is on board in some capacity, then he or she can help a lot in deflecting the attempts to steer the show in one direction or another.
People pitch the studios, and the networks, from June to September. Then, in the fall, the pitches that have been accepted get refined into outlines, which hopefully will become pilot scripts.
Often, says Berg, you'll get asked to submit a "story document" as soon as the pitch is accepted, to make sure that everybody is on the same page. That doesn't mean that the executives can't change their minds later on about what they want, but it means that they know what they're getting. Then you turn in a detailed outline, that everybody weighs in on.
Around Halloween, the networks will actually order pilot scripts (or actual pilots in some cases, see below.) In October and November, every Starbucks in L.A. is full of writers frantically pounding out pilot scripts, so they can get a first draft to the network by Thanksgiving. "This is when local coffeeshops crank up the A/C in order to scare off squatters like me," says Berg.
Although, one producer tells io9, the fanciest TV writers are writing their pilot scripts at SoHo House nowadays.
Once the first draft is in, you get more notes on that from the studio and the network. And then you go back and try to hand in a revised draft before everybody leaves town for the holidays, in December. Everybody knows that if you don't get a "revised network draft" into the hands of executives by the second week of January at the latest, "you're probably screwed," says Berg.
From November to early January, the writers may turn in multiple drafts of their scripts, doing several passes in response to studio and network notes, says Grillo-Marxuach.
If you read the trades, like Hollywood Reporter or Deadline, you'll see lots of bewildering terminology about the various ways that networks have ordered TV shows. The differences boil down to one crucial factor: how badly the network wanted a show, and how stiff the competition was to buy that show.
Sometimes the network will agree to financial penalties if a show doesn't get made or get on the air — but as Hieroglyph proves, no "guarantee" can actually force a network to put a show on television if the network doesn't want to.
So here are some terms and our rough explanations of what they actually mean:
"Put pilot commitment": The network pretty much promises to film the pilot, unless the script turns out to be just unfilmable.
"Script order with penalty": Similarly, the network promises to order the pilot after it gets the script — or if they don't, the producers could get anywhere up to a seven-figure sum.
"Pilot order": The network is ordering the filming of the pilot, possibly after having seen a script.
"Direct to series order": The network will order the production of 13 episodes up front, even without seeing a pilot. This makes sense when a show has such huge set-up costs, it doesn't make sense to spend that much money to film just a pilot. (This is what Hieroglyph had.) In theory, there's no way to go back on the order for a full 13 episodes — but in practice, a studio and network have lots of projects going on at the same time, and a deal can often be renogiated after the fact. We'll let you out of the 13-episode order for this one show, if you go forward with this other show.
"On-air commitment": The network promises to put the show on television, even before anything's been filmed. This is only really possible if there's a direct-to-series order. Also, sometimes, pilots that didn't get picked up will be shown in weird timeslots as TV movies, probably to satisfy a contract clause.
If you're incredibly lucky, you get your order to start filming in late January... at the same time as dozens of other aspiring TV shows. A small percentage of the scripts the networks bought are actually ordered as pilots or series, says Berg. Back in the day, the networks would order as many as 25 pilots each — but they're trying to save money these days, so it's more likely to be eight to 12 pilots each.
If the show was lucky enough to get a direct-to-series order, then it has to start staffing a writers' room right away, and developing the next eight (or 12) scripts after the pilot.
But either way, the next big challenge is hiring actors and crew for your suddenly greenlit show. Even with a smaller number of network pilots these days, it still means scores of shows are competing for the same small number of people.
L.A. is crawling with aspiring actors, but there's a relatively tiny number of actors that the networks believe can star in a TV show. You need a certain level of experience, name recognition and status to carry a show, in the networks' views.
Personally, I think there are more actors with the talent to star in their own series than the networks would have you believe. But they tend to stay inside the box when it comes to casting lead roles, seeking out familiar faces, which is why there's still not a lot of diversity to be found on the major networks or even on cable.
Some actors will sign "holding deals" with a particular network, meaning they'll promise to star in that network's shows, to keep them on retainer, says Berg. Sometimes, the network will even hire writers to develop a show for a particular star who's on contract.
And sometimes, an actor will be committed to two different shows for two different networks, which is why you'll hear the actor is in "first position" on one show and "second position" on another show. If the both shows get picked up, the one that has that actor in "first position" wins.
Shows will also be competing over directors, and crews. There are a very limited number of directors who are known for shooting successful pilots — and sometimes, a director will come on board earlier, during the script stage, to help sell a show. But a talented crew will be in short supply, even if you film outside L.A., and several shows may fight over the same handful of crewmembers.
Actual production and post-production happen in March and April, which means a frantic schedule of trying to create the actual pilot that that you've been pitching since June. And that also means "lots of overtime for editors, VFX people, and post facilities that do sound editing and color correction," says Grillo-Marxuach.
And here we get to the point of this whole exercise: In May, the networks have "upfronts," where they announce their new shows to advertisers. This whole process is basically a huge countdown to the upfronts, to ensure the networks will have shiny new stuff to show off.
You might find out a week or two before the upfronts that your show has been picked up — if you're incredibly lucky. But sometimes, the network doesn't make up its mind, or let you know, until the very last minute. "Basically, you sit by the phone and have a bag packed because you could be going to NYC in the span of twelve hours," says Grillo-Marxuach."
If the show does get picked up, the creators may find themselves sitting on a panel discussion with the actors, in front of a crowd of advertisers and journalists, soon after finding out they have jobs.
Every year, new TV shows come to Comic-Con and show their pilots, and the creators and cast members answer questions from the audience and journalists. And pretty much every time, the actors will respond that they've only filmed the pilot at this point, and can only speculate about what happens in the second episode based on that. Why do TV shows that are launching in September still not filming before late July?
Because they have to start staffing up with writers, to write all the episodes that come after the pilot. Berg explains:
Because of the uncertainty with network scheduling, showrunners often don't wait for the official word before starting to put together their writing staffs. The Upfronts are the second or third week in May and writing staffs generally start the first week in June, so really there's no time to waste. On several occasions I've been "hired" on shows that didn't end up getting picked up. Which is why you never put all your eggs in one basket. Just like actors can be in first or second position to a show, so can writers.
And it can take about six weeks for production to ramp up after the show is picked up, meaning that when Comic-Con rolls around in July, the show is often just about to start filming its second episode. Also, the show may wind up with a totally different crew than the one that filmed the pilot — and it may film in a different city than the pilot was filmed in, depending on financial incentives.
For everybody whose show didn't get picked up, June is a time of "rest, psychiatric therapy, dieting and exercise," before the whole mess starts all over again, says Grillo-Marxuach.