Learning About the 2013 Pilot Season Through Pie Charts

By Tim Surette

Apr 11, 2013

As TV networks push their shows into a pit of death and despair over the course of a television season, they aim to replenish their stocks over the course of pilot season. Pilots are to tadpoles what television series are to frogs: the last stage of development before the lucky ones leave the pond as full-fledged programs that are ready to say "Yo!" to the world. But only a handful are lucky enough to hear their names called at the Upfronts in May and go on to join network schedules. 

Before we drop the amphibian metaphors to focus on the specific details of this year's pilots, we thought it'd be fun to explore the overall crop, in hopes of understanding what the networks were thinking when they ordered this year's offerings. And I don't know about you, but nothing is more fun than pie graphs! As evidenced by this totally accurate pie graph:

So now that I've provided you with some indisputable evidence of the good times created by pie graphs, let's take a look at which networks are developing what in the fields of comedy and drama. 

Note: We got all of our pilot data from The Hollywood Reporter's 2013 Pilot Guide. You can also refer to last year's edition of "Learning about Pilot Season Through Pie Charts," which'll come in handy for comparing year-to-year changes.

Who's got the most pilots in development?

Given how many disasters NBC has suffered this year and how many of its shows are ending, it's not surprising that the network has more pilots in development than any of the other broadcast networks, with 27 works-in-progress (up from last year's total of 23). Unless NBC puts The Voice on five nights a week (which wouldn't surprise me) or miraculously renews some of its low-rated newbies (Deception, 1600 Penn, Guys with Kids), it's facing an absurdly large schedule turnover. Of course, most pilots stink, so NBC has a long way to go before it stops getting laughed at by Univision. 

ABC, Fox, and The CW have all held steady, ordering the same number pilots as they did last year (24, 16, and eight, respectively; don't forget that Fox doesn't program the 10pm hour, so it's actually keeping pace with ABC). But CBS went on a relative spending spree by comparison, ordering 23 pilots—way up from last year's total of 16. I'd guess that the network is investing a little more in search of some edgier fare (superhero comedy Super Clyde and Josh Holloway as an enhanced agent in Intelligence both stand out), probably in an effort to keep up with pop-culture trends. However, it's worth noting that the network's slate isn't overloaded with risky-for-CBS shows. Maybe the network will program Saturdays and blow our minds?

Are networks looking to make us laugh, or do they want to get serious?

No surprises here. A couple seasons ago, the rush for another Big Bang Theory or Modern Family was rampant, but comedy has produced lots of duds in the years since. New Girl is probably the biggest hit to come out of the last two years, and the show's numbers are way down from its debut. ABC wins the consistency award, evenly splitting its 24 pilots between comedy and drama for the second year in a row—which makes sense, since it whiffed on new hits in either genre this year (The Neighbors is its big comedy hit for the 2012-2013 season, and we still can't say whether Nashville, its biggest drama, will be back). 

The biggest change in the comedy-or-drama category comes from Fox, who went comedy bonkers last season, ordering 11 comedies and only 5 dramas in an effort to solidify its Tuesday comedy block. But only one of its freshmen comedies, The Mindy Project, has survived, so Fox cooled its jets on laughter this year and went for an even split. 

CBS retains an almost even split, mostly because it's not dealing with any glaring problems in either comedy or drama. Meanwhile, while every aspect of NBC is in shambles, its comedy slate is particularly dismal: 30 Rock ended in January, The Office will say goodbye in May, and Up All Night is a definite goner. What's more, only Go On and Parks and Recreation look promising enough for renewal, meaning the network needs laughers badly. And its drama situation isn't much better. Come to think of it, NBC needs everything but alternate-history dramas about power outages. 

Finally, The CW is once again going for the title of Unfunniest Network on TV, focusing exclusively on capturing the young-adult crowd with stories about vampires and ghosts. 

How many cameras will the network comedies be needing this season?

Single-camera comedies are still oh-so-fashionable, and it seems that even stubborn old laugh-trackin' CBS has taken notice. Last year, CBS ordered eight comedy pilots, seven of which used a standard multi-cam format. This year, the network has added four single-camera projects for a total of five, which means CBS has a nearly even split between formats. THAT IS CRAZY! But just like with CBS's increase in total number of pilots, I have to suspect that the reason it's trying more single-camera comedies is that it sees something changing down the line and is slowly shaking things up. Gotta keep up with the times, even when you're in first place, and single-camera comedies are the shows that get all the attention come awards season. Don't expect comedies about aliens or community colleges, though; most of CBS's single-camera pilots still fall squarely in the ratings-friendly family comedy territory. 

Elsewhere, given NBC's decisions to let Guys With Kids and Whitney hang around and the bone-headed proposal to turn Up All Night into a multi-cam, it wouldn't surprise me if the network really pushes toward multi-camera comedies (borrowing CBS's model) to remedy its problems. At the very least, if multi-cam comedies fail, they're cheaper failures. Fox's lone multi-cam pilot is actually Seth MacFarlane's Dads, which apparently already received a six-episode order. But that deal is more to appease Seth, who makes Fox billions of dollars each year with his sophomoric 'toons. The network is committed to single cams. ABC has some versatility to play with when it comes to comedy. It can add a single-cam to its solid Wednesday block (at the cost of a Suburgatory or The Neighbors shift), give the one-hour Tuesday-night single-cam block another shot, or continue to air multi-camera comedies on Fridays. ABC is simply looking to improve, not to shake up the program.

What's all the drama about?

Note: There's a lot of genre overlap this season (supernatural cops, cops who become lawyers, etc...), so I grouped shows into whatever genre felt "dominant" based on their loglines, but it wasn't exactly a scientific process. I've also added a new genre this year: the "political / military" group. 

Good old ABC and NBC are going with the dartboard approach, ordering a large variety of dramas. With ABC, this isn't surprising; the network isn't afraid to try new things, and the plan it thought was solid last year—beefing up on sci-fi and soaps after the success of Revenge and Once Upon a Time—didn't work. NBC appears to be doing the same thing, but it's casting a wider net because it's interested in catching whatever it possibly can. An old boot? Sure, pull it up! 

CBS looks to be branching out, possibly due to the success of its sci-fi-tinged Person of Interest giving the network a reason to experiment. But its development slate is still cop-heavy, as usual (last year, six of CBS's eight pilots wore some sort of badge). And despite the failures of Alcatraz and Terra Nova, Fox is giving sci-fi another go (with J.J. Abrams' Human leading the way), and tempering it with a few staples. 

Finally, after a couple medical experiments (Hart of Dixie, Emily Owens, M.D.), The CW is accepting its fate as a home for teenage girls' fantasy swoon sessions. But with Arrow a big hit, male-skewing pilots like The Hundred and The Tomorrow People might also find a home. Why all the sudden interest in political/military thrillers? Blame the buzz of Homeland.   


So there you go, numbers and pretty colors in circles!. We'll take a closer look at individual pilots in the coming weeks, but based on what we've seen so far, CBS is trying to remain in first place by following its winning formula while also preparing for the future. ABC is adding some variety to its drama slate while banking on single-camera comedy—a category where it's already found success. Fox is hoping that it'll finally be able to find a sci-fi hit. The CW is embracing its audience full of young'uns who love beautiful supernatural beings. And NBC has hit rock bottom and will try pretty much whatever, in hopes that something—anything—will stick. 

What do the pie charts tell *you* about the current state of the networks? And how awesome are pie charts?
  • Comments (79)
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  • barbs84 Apr 12, 2013

    great analysis, congraulations

  • JT_Kirk Apr 12, 2013

    "Fun in pie graphs" pie graph? More like "Lie graph"!

    I think CBS's shift to single-cam sitcoms is due to stumbling hard on "Partners" despite giving it a plum lead-in, as well as 2 anchor shows - How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men - starting to feel worn and looking for an exit. That said, they've done poorly in the single camera format over the last decade.

    Poor "Old Boot Network", they really haven't a foggy clue as to what their audience wants to see.

    WHAT THE FUCK ARE THESE VOTING RESULTS THOUGH?!? The CW has the "best strategy" for remaining the lowest-rated national broadcast network, and nothing else. Who else pisses that much money away to capture 0.33% of viewers and is happy to do it? That's not a strategy for success, that's a strategy for keeping the water-treading CW's face from slipping under the waterline. Call me when they have 1 percent of the national audience and I'll call that a step in the right direction.

  • saluk64007 Apr 13, 2013

    CW is a little different from the other networks. For one thing, it has less hours of original programming and more syndication, which is much cheaper. The original programming it does have is a bonus on the top of the cake. Also, while it doesn't have great ratings, it does have a very understandable and lucrative target audience, which advertisers like. They've been running this way, steadily, for 5 years or so now; it doesn't make sense to change a working strategy. All of that said, I agree with you. I'm surprised it's doing so well in the poll, nearly 3x the next highest rated option.

  • JT_Kirk Apr 13, 2013

    The CW has a VHF broadcast license with national affiliates, that's a huge deal, they are in a very exclusive club in that respect. The CW has new original, non-syndicated programming 2 hours a day, 5 days a week (ok, it looks like with the cancellations this season they have 2 rerun slots). They are operating as 5/6ths much content hours as Fox, and have more operating capital than Fox had when it started out. Yet they continue to flounder. This strategy doesn't look like it's planning to turn that around. And yet, as you said, it's 3 times higher-voted than the next choice. I accuse its fans of spamming the vote without comprehending the article's content.

  • shadowclone7290 Apr 13, 2013

    I think that's an unfair assessment of the network truthfully out of these five networks the majority of my favorite shows come from the CW with the two exceptions being NCIS and HIMYM. Plus it's a smaller network when you look at networks like Fox and NBC that don't even have one show that I find entertaining and haven't since the death of Heroes (RIP), I would say the CW does fine for it's size and at least has some fun/good programing, and I mean really look how far NBC and FOX have fallen that's what I call treading water... :D

  • JT_Kirk Apr 13, 2013

    How is that an unfair assessment? The CW has very low viewership, a scant fraction of the other networks listed here. You can say that you like the network and its content, but you can't say that their strategy has worked at all to better itself so far, it's not grown significantly, it's utterly stuck in neutral. Doing more of the same doesn't seem like a great strategy to succeed. Arrow might be an enjoyable show, but its CW ratings are the worst in the world, they're a blight on a show that's huge overseas from the UK to Asia.

    Fox used to be The CW, they used to be the pipsqueak upstart joke with a handful of viewers, but their strategies worked and now they're considered a major player, they stand taller than NBC. The CW hasn't succeeded in that way and it's had plenty of time to do so. Even as NBC and Fox flounder, they still are head and shoulders above The CW in business terms.

  • KeyserSoze Apr 12, 2013

    Does anyone even care anymore? All the good shows are on cable/premium cable, anyway

  • shadowclone7290 Apr 13, 2013

    I don't disagree with you USA, TNT, AMC, and Syfy make up 80% of my shows watched anyway but CBS, ABC, and The CW have some good stuff. Truthfully if you haven't checked out Arrow yet you should give it a try it's quickly becoming one my favorite shows. :D

  • KeyserSoze Apr 13, 2013

    I've checked Arrow, as well as Elementary and Go On. I also keep watching Person of Interest and Supernatural. But the truth is all my favorite shows nowdays are on cable

  • docspector Apr 12, 2013

    Duh. Some of us don't HAVE cable/premium cable. Primitive living conditions, I know, but there it is.

  • KeyserSoze Apr 13, 2013

    And there is nothing wrong with that (although there are other means to get those shows ;) )

  • Carla-Wexler Apr 12, 2013

    I love pie charts!

  • bicelis Apr 12, 2013

    How come The CW is winning in the polls? CBS has clearly the better plan, they may not be the best network here, but the business strategy is solid.

  • JT_Kirk Apr 12, 2013

    Vote-spamming by teenagers invested in TVD or something, I'd guess.

  • BarryDalton Apr 12, 2013

    i assume Tim jumbled the frog and tv analogy for comic effect ... more like comic affect! (comedy gold, tim, comedy gold)

  • bicelis Apr 12, 2013

    You sound like a person who watches Craig Ferguson. Top shelf!

  • BarryDalton Apr 16, 2013

    In Thailand they don't have the "le" sound, as in little. They say "littun"...so I guess Tim's pie article is an Apple Pie article (A pun Pie)...

    am i right?

    is this on?

  • BarryDalton Apr 16, 2013

    This comment has been removed.

  • sleepy-sonic Apr 12, 2013

    The pie charts don't tell us anything new; NBC is sinking, CW is "the teen network" and CBS is a network for procedurals

  • tamaabi Apr 12, 2013

    Pie Charts are awesome.

  • tidus1117 Apr 12, 2013

    Cant wait to see an article with the description on all the CW pilots since its the one with more votes on the poll!! :)

  • JeremyStratten Apr 12, 2013

    Pie charts make me hungry.

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