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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.