Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dispatch 3 from Pilot Season

Dozens of pilots competing for a handful of timeslots. And you thought law school was competitive.

Welcome to pilot season - like finals week crossed with mating season, all month long.

The stakes are high, of course, in television - higher than finals week, maybe not quite as high as mating season. A very successful television show can garner literally billions of dollars; even if the show's a flop, the producers, writers, and actors will still get paid sums ranging from handsome to princely. (Everybody below the line will likely get screwed when the show is cancelled after the first two episodes air.) But to even achieve the distinction of becoming a flop, the show first has to be picked up by a network. There, as they say, is the rub.

Every year, dozens of new series are conceived: pilot scripts are written, shows are cast and shot, then edited and mixed. The sound work, as ever, is put off as long as possible: and so every year at roughly the same time - April, usually, being the cruelest month - the onslaught of postproduction begins. What does this mean to me? Sleep deprivation, and the things that go with sleep deprivation: the bad (tiredness, depression, an inability to prevent myself from grabbing cookies and muffins and stuffing them into my mouth), and the good (overtime pay).

An awful lot of money is spent on these undertakings, considering that most of them, like the small, cute animal pests they resemble, will be eaten before reaching maturity. Some - not nearly enough - are killed while they are still in the shell. Most of those that are finally born, after absorbing heroic effort and vast sums of money, will shortly be euthanized.

(Last year I saw a rough cut of a pilot from a very well-respected source, in which the network had politely expressed a firm lack of interest. The surprising thing was not that the network wasn't interested, but that the producers had shown the pilot to the network before finishing it. This wouldn't be unusual in most businesses, perhaps - why wouldn't you want to find out from the client whether they might be interested in your product, before spending tens of thousands of dollars on a sure loser? - but I've very rarely heard of anyone in Hollywood not putting their best foot forward... where "best foot" means production value, not script quality.)

Most pilots are ... how shall I say it? ... not so good. Believe it or not, the stuff that eventually gets on television is mostly better than the stuff that doesn't. It's a loose tendency, because of course the networks are infinitely more interested in making money than they are in putting good shows on the air, which is why such mind-numbing drivel as "Watching Ellie" got airtime: someone mistakenly thought that some of the magic of "Seinfeld" was residually present in Julia Louise-Dreyfus, and that they would therefore stand a good chance of making piles of money.

But I digress... my point is, I need a nap.


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