Strike Upside: A Reformed TV Business

No surprise that the Hollywood studios, to borrow some Variety slanguage, ankled the negotiating table on Friday even after the writers begged them not to. That’s because Hollywood would be all too happy to see the writer’s strike drag on, and put an end to two pillars of the TV business: the May upfronts and pilot season.

Network TV is in need of its own Reformation, and the Big Four have been waiting for an opportunity to collectively undergo one without drawing anti-trust attention. As the WSJ notes traditions that drive the business–pilot season, the upfronts, May and November “sweeps,” etc.–are vestigial and costly.

The system is an anachronism that dates from the early days of TV, when big fall premieres were more important and Detroit would use them to introduce its new car models. The schedule has also been reinforced by other antiquated practices, including summer hiatuses, which TV adopted in its infancy from the world of radio serials, and seasonal “sweeps” periods used to set local advertising rates.

The last shakeup of the TV’s antiquated business practices occurred during the last strike in 1988, which ushered in a new era of cheap, unscripted, un-unionized fare. This strike could end pilot season as the networks now know it (and pay for it), as well as de-emphasise or eliminate the May upfront.

So what will replace “pilot season” and the upfronts?

  • Pilot Season: The networks for years have been moving away from traditional “pilot season” to year-round development, but this would accelerate the process; shows would be produced, sold and premiered year-around. One possiblity pilots could start out as web shorts, like “Quarterlife,” (sort-of – recall that Quarterlife was actually first produced as a television show) and then jump to network TV when they’ve gained a following.
  • The Upfronts: The networks still want to offer their ad inventory “upfront” for the coming year to lock in rates, but more TV advertising is a year-around business, which means the networks could dramatically de-emphasise the upfronts. Without a slate of new shows ready to go, advertisers would be less inclined to commit budgets at once, so the May upfront would get smaller, and maybe split into two or more selling periods during the year.

Earlier: Writer’s Strike Talks Done, Both Sides Shoot Selves In Feet

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