Have you ever wondered how pilot season works or wanted to know why a broadcast network cancelled your favorite show? Do you want one place where all of this information is easily found?
Shahar Says is a new monthly column about Broadcast TV. Specifically ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX (The Big 4) and The CW.
For the last seven years, I have obsessed over and learned how the business works. I know how confusing it is to learn about everything. For the next few months, I’ll explain what all the random terms thrown around by networks and reporters mean leading up to May when Upfronts occur.
Upfronts are the week when networks present all their new shows for the following TV year to news media and finalize cancelled shows from the current year.
This article is all about pilot season. Next month is about ratings and misconceptions, plus how to understand renewals and cancellations. (Spoiler alert, it all comes down to $$$$).
In May, I’ll continue my Upfronts yearly article with a focus on how many shows have diversely cast leads and overall trends. Also in May is deeper dives into the five networks’ failures, successes, and thoughts on the picked up series.
Go ahead, bookmark this for all your pilot season definition needs, and let’s jump right in!
Pilot Season Definitions
Pilot Season: The time period roughly between January and May when pilots are written, cast, filmed, shown to network brass, tested with audiences, and ordered/picked up to series. (Writers work on new scripts and ideas as early as June after the season itself ends.)
Put into Development: A network, the producers, and writers are forming the very basic script and specifications of a show.
Script order with penalty: The network promises to order a pilot after seeing the script.
Pilot Order: A network has ordered the pilot’s filming after seeing a script.
Pilot: The actual cast and filmed first episode of a show.
- Put Pilot Commitment: A pilot with a significant financial penalty attached if the pilot does not go to series. This generally guarantees a great chance of the network ordering the pilot to series.
- Planted Spin-Off: Also known as a backdoor pilot, an episode that sets up a spin off for a new show. (This year Grey’s Anatomy is setting up for an unnamed firefighter’s show set in the same universe.)
- Presentation: Due to time or budget constraints, a presentation of the show’s concept with cast and some scenes filmed.
Cast-Contingent: A network orders a pilot with the caveat that production won’t start until they cast a big name actor.
Second-Position: When stars from low-rated series start looking for new jobs (with permission) sign onto a pilot. If their show is renewed they won’t be on the new one. Generally if this happens, their original show is likely dead.
Straight to Series Order: The network orders the production of a certain number of episodes upfront (usually 10-13) even without seeing a pilot. The script/cast/writer and producer combination is enough for the network to place faith in the outcome. (Not that it always goes well.) Of course, studios and networks can renegotiate down the road. (This year ABC gave both The Rookie and Take Two straight to series orders, so both should make it to air.)
Limited Series: A show with limited episodes per season. (The Will and Grace revival, or HTGAWM, which only has 15 episodes due to Viola Davis’ contract.)
Mini Series or Event Series: One season OR if the ratings are good, more seasons.
Ordered/Picked up to series: Pilots given a series order April-May to air in the fall or spring of the following TV season.
Back 9s: Most shows only receive a 10-13 series order at the beginning. In November and December based on ratings (explained next month), networks give back nine orders. Nine episodes give a fall show a full season (22 episodes.) If a show doesn’t get a back 9, it’s usually dead. Shows that premiere in the midseason (January-March or even later) don’t get back 9s. If they do well, networks may choose to air a second season of 22 episodes.
These are the most important and basic definitions of the terms you see in articles about pilot season. Hopefully it clears up any questions you’ve had while reading the news. If there’s anything I missed or you want to know, leave me a comment and I’ll get back to you!
Additionally if you’re interested in pilot news, Deadline has an awesome round-up of the pilots though the pilots in contention this year won’t be updated for a bit.
Come back next month to learn how ratings lead to renewals or cancellations!