TV networks are copying Netflix by ditching pilots, but it can lead to disasters like 'Insatiable'

NetflixNetflix doesn’t do pilots, but its new original ‘Insatiable’ could have benefitted from one.
  • Data from research firm Ampere Analysis shows that major TV networks are starting to order shows straight to series without a pilot.
  • Netflix has been doing this all along.
  • Between 2015 and 2018, the number of pilots ordered by major US networks decreased by 33%.
  • This has some major upsides that could change the television industry, but also downsides.

As streaming services take over the TV landscape, networks are following their lead and picking up shows “straight to series” without going through the “pilot” stage.

Pilot episodes are meant to show networks the tone of the show, and the chemistry of the cast, to help influence its decision to order a season to air (or not). Pilot episodes can also change a network’s mind on casting decisions, like HBO’s infamous and unaired “Game of Thrones” pilot, which convinced HBO to recast several major roles including Catelyn Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. On average, 43% of pilot episodes progress to a series order.

But at Netflix, it has been the norm to order an entire season, completely skipping the pilot stage.

And networks seem to be following suit. According to Ampere Analysis, pilots are no longer a mainstay in broadcast network’s commissioning culture – and could be on their way out. Ampere reports that between 2015-2018, the number of pilots ordered by major US networks decreased by 33%.

In 2015, the major networks – which include ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC – ordered 106 pilots total. In 2017, that number reduced to 73.

Ampere’s analysis shows that a pilot did not determine the success of a show in surviving its first season. Between 2015 and 2018, 64% of all series that did not have a pilot episode were cancelled after only one season. 56% of series that had a pilot episode were also cancelled after one season.

While picking up a show straight to series has its benefits – there is no stage where creators, actors, and crew are waiting to see if they have a long-term gig – it also has its downsides. One downside is that a show could turn out to be a complete mess, like Netflix’s most recent release “Insatiable,” a clumsy social commentary that received heated backlash for fat-shaming. It has a measly 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and its many flaws are all on display in the first episode.

Another downside directly affects actors. Pilot season is an important time for actors who are trying to get cast on TV shows. Actors from New York City and all over the country come to Los Angeles every year to audition for pilots. Even if one they star in doesn’t get picked up, it can help them get noticed by a network in hopes for casting on another project in the near future.

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