In the world of Current Programming, we are quickly approaching the time of year known as “midseason.” Since shows have to be finished taping before they can air (duh), we are at the point where most new shows that were ordered last year are taping episode 13, which completes their initial order. Which means, by now, networks have had to decide their fates. Some have received full-season orders (Nashville, Vegas, Elementary, Revolution, Arrow, Beauty & The Beast), some have been canceled (666 Park Avenue, Last Resort, Emily Owens MD), some are not officially canceled but since no more episodes have been ordered, it’s clear that’s what’s happening (Mob Doctor). The networks are preparing a new slew of shows to take over for the canceled shows in January. Those shows can only hope to air 13 episodes this season, and to perhaps get picked up for a season two with all of the other newbies at the Upfronts in May.
Behind the scenes, in Development, this is pilot season. Well, it’s always really pilot season. But this is when pilot scripts are being ordered or bought. If you read the trades, you’ll recognize the routine rather quickly. In September, the studios go first to the showrunners of very successful shows and ask them to write a pilot script. Shonda Rhimes, Joss Whedon, David E. Kelley, Carol Mendelsohn, Josh Schwartz, even Dan Harmon all get script deals. (If you don’t know who any of these people are, get thee to IMDB!) The question is just which network the deal will be with. I have heard of situations where a producer was working on a show for one network and then got a pilot deal with another network and things got… uncomfortable. Although usually there are enough lawyers involved to make sure everyone stays civil.
“Yes!” you say, “this is the chance for me to send my script in and it will be read and bought and I, a virtual unknown, will be handed the keys to the kingdom!” Well, you say that if you’re a tool. What really happens next is that the talent gets script deals. No, really. Actors and singers are next in line. Cee Lo Green, Eva Longoria, Wilmer Valderrama and Ricky Martin all have development deals this fall.
Next up are the lower-level producers. Not usually, like, staff writers, but the people who are not already showrunners but probably could be, based on their experience. They’re the ones who actually have to pitch. The others all pitched, of course, but they could have all pitched the same thing (I’m pretty sure several of them did – “It’s my life story!”) and it wouldn’t have mattered. The studios were buying the name. Now they’re buying stories.
And after that, once all the big names and famous faces and truly amazing talent have been marched through their offices, then they’ll turn to the big pile of scripts that every agent in town has been sending. (No, none of them will take scripts not sent by an agent. None.) They – and their assistants – will haul that big stack of scripts through all their holiday travels. And this is why your writing teachers tell you to grab your readers in the first ten pages – because if you’re the one hauling that stack of scripts, you will do anything to make it lighter. They’re looking for the next Mad Men, or Game of Thrones, or Downton Abbey except set in modern day America with lots of action and really cheap. They can tell if you fit that criteria in ten pages. (If you think you have them fooled because suddenly your entire story moves to ancient Egypt on page 30, all you’ve really done is succeed in making your reader pissed.)
Those last few script buys will happen in January. The pilots will shoot in April/March, and at the Upfronts in May everyone will find out which shows are picked up and which ones aren’t. The new shows won’t even have aired yet before the cycle begins again. They have to find the next great hit before they can cancel the last one they don’t know yet will fail. Next up, why this is hysterically funny.