Fox Ends Pilot Season. What Took So Long?

Yesterday, Fox Chairman Kevin Reilly announced that the network was no longer going to participate in pilot season, the traditional springtime scramble during which TV networks produce dozens of pilot episodes of shows that may or may not pan out. Instead, Reilly said in an executive session, the network would pick up pilots and launch new shows throughout the year. He also suggested that the network would be more selective in the pilots it picks up and more likely to commit to entire seasons of the pilots it does produce.

The announcement was a long time coming, and marks an attempt to align the way television is made with the way it is increasingly consumed. Like political consultants, schoolteachers, and farmers, the people who make television shows have always been seasonal workers. After pilot season the networks would ruthlessly cull, signing on to only a few of the shows that they had made pilots for, then presenting their lineups to advertisers in May at the upfronts. Production began over the summer, during which time audiences watched reruns. The new shows would arrive on TV in the fall.

Today, however, the concept of a TV season doesn’t make much sense anymore, and it hasn’t for a while. Considering how much TV Americans watch, it’s odd it took this long for anyone to really realize it. As with everything else in TV these days, the change was driven in part by cable. Cable networks have for years been experimenting with shorter seasons—13 episodes of Breaking Bad instead of 22—or miniseries, and with launching shows in the spring or summer rather in the fall. And pay channels like HBO didn’t have advertisers they had to invite to an annual conference, which gave them more flexibility in when they could do things.

The big networks have tinkered with the pilot-season format in the past. A decade ago, points out Brad Adgate, an analyst at Horizon Media, Fox itself briefly experimented with rolling out shows over the summer rather than launching them all in the fall. Since then, of course, TV audiences have shifted even further toward cable. And for more and more viewers today, the concept of a television schedule—much less a season—is meaningless, as they record shows on their DVR or pick them on Netflix or Amazon and watch them whenever is most convenient.

While that makes for a more brutal environment for networks, it has greatly expanded their appetite for new content—after all, with so much choice over what to watch, viewers are less and less likely to sit through reruns. That’s a good thing for people who write and produce and act in shows, and if the wealth of excellent stuff on TV right now is any indication, it’s a good thing for viewers, too.

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