Fox at the TCA press tour: Kevin Reilly kills pilot season

Fox at the TCA press tour: Kevin Reilly kills pilot season

For these several years since he assumed the helm of the great network Fox, Kevin Reilly has roamed the broadcast high seas, eyes firmly affixed upon the trophy he need capture, the prize that would bring him great acclaim back in the whaling ports of West Hollywood: pilot season. For as many times as he’s insisted pilot season must go down, Reilly seems to possess an almost pathological hatred of the annual rush by all networks to complete as many pilots as they can, sample those wares, then shove a bunch of them on the air in September. Technically, Fox’s desire to move to a “year-round” schedule predates Reilly’s tenure at the network—and roughly back to the network’s 2004-05 schedule, which purported to list a full year’s worth of debuts, including an O.C. spinoff that was never even made—but Reilly’s the one who keeps insisting that for Fox to survive the tumultuous vortex that is the modern TV landscape, it needs to become more like a cable network.

Well, apparently Kevin Reilly just realized he’s the president of the Fox network and can just do crazy shit when he wants to, because he decided to kill pilot season this morning at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. Okay, technically, this decision has been in the works for a while now, and the network has been quietly stocking up on product to make it happen. But Fox isn’t going to order dozens of pilots, only to have many of them fail. It’s going to pick up projects it really believes in, then take the time to get them right. Reilly cited how John Landgraf was able to take Sons Of Anarchy from a pilot that didn’t work, recast the lead, and turn it into FX’s number one show. He’d like that kind of flexibility in a broadcast network setting, and he thinks the time for it is right.

To which we can only say: Good luck.

The problem with ditching pilot season has always been that doing so suddenly leaves a network with bare cupboards for a couple of years while it shifts to a new process that both programs and develops year-round. FX can take its time with development, because even now, with three networks to program, it’s programming a much smaller amount of real estate overall. Broadcast networks’ footprints may have shrunk compared to where they were a couple of decades ago, but they’re still the biggest dinosaurs on the landscape. Pilot season arose not because everybody wanted to develop a remarkably inefficient process but because it was the best answer anyone could come up with to find a way to fill a whole bunch of timeslots as quickly as possible.

This is not to say that pilot season isn’t an anachronistic process that deserves to die. It absolutely is, and it absolutely does. As with so many other things, Reilly’s instincts here are correct. He’s just trying to play the game as it will be played in 2020 when he’s still stuck in 2014 and needs to pay lip service to being a traditional broadcast network, instead of a growing content provider to numerous video on-demand services. Put it this way: Another of Reilly’s main points was that Fox’s fall 2013 was up 8 percent over fall 2012, but only if you incorporate the sorts of platforms advertisers are loathe to pay premium for, like online streaming. Indeed, people who watch TV online are more likely to complete the episodes they watch (and thus consume all ads) than those who watch it traditionally. But advertisers remain somewhat reticent about this audience, so Reilly keeps beating the drum.

One of the themes that constantly develops at these TCA executive sessions is the way that suits at the various networks see their businesses’ roles in the changing media landscape. Reilly clearly and increasingly sees Fox less as a TV network and more as a brand name or touchstone, a mark that indicates what one is seeing is possessed of a certain level of quality or a sensibility. This explains much of Reilly’s commitment to programming lower-rated sitcoms that, nonetheless, draw dedicated audiences across multiple platforms and garner adoring reviews and sometimes even a Golden Globe or two. (Reilly would take issue with my qualification of these shows as “lower-rated,” since Brooklyn Nine-Nine draws over eight million viewers when all platforms are included, but advertisers seem suspicious.) Airing a New Girl or Mindy Project now and taking a slightly smaller profit than might be gotten from a show that’s much bigger with the broadcast audience will ideally pay off in a world 10 years from now when the word “Fox” nebulously stamped across the bottom of a stream will indicate a certain comedic quality or sensibility. It’s like trying to apply NBC’s old “must-see TV” strategy to a whole network.

Viewed in that prism, even something like the continued existence of Dads makes sense, beyond simply the fact that having it on the air probably keeps executive producer Seth MacFarlane happy (and thus in the Fox family). Dads might be absolutely terrible, but it has a sensibility that isn’t really being appealed to on other networks, and if those interested in the MacFarlane vibe become attached to the Fox brand, well, there are a lot of them. Reilly also wants to develop additional non-traditional platforms like Fox ADHD and an upcoming venture with Lonely Island, platforms which could eventually spin off into shows for Fox primetime or its cable channels. He even continues to pay lip service to programming on Fridays, where MasterChef Junior did fairly well, Bones has done… okay, and both Raising Hope and Enlisted have struggled. (In the case of Bones, Reilly expects the show to be back next season. He’s also waiting and seeing on Enlisted, airing the episodes he has and then seeing how the DVR numbers are at season’s end.) Reilly would very much like to make the Fox brand your lifestyle, man.

But that’s easier said than done. Ditching pilot season is so tough because it’s got years of entrenched history standing in the way of doing it. Right now, as Reilly and company frantically try to fill in their schedule for the year to come without the benefit of pilot season, they’re turning increasingly to picking up other networks’ leftovers (like Backstrom, the Hart Hanson and Rainn Wilson project CBS passed on) and limited series that will only last 10 episodes or so. (Included among these are the M. Night Shyamalan project Wayward Pines and the Broadchurch remake Grace Point, which Reilly confirmed will have a different ending for those who have seen the original.) This means that the 2014-15 season may see lots of marginal renewals for the network—including The Mindy Project, which sounds good to return, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which was going to return anyway—but if Fox can get through these next couple of years, it should become much sleeker and more able to respond to conditions on the ground as they develop.

Of course, getting there is the problem. For every wild stab in the dark Fox takes that works, like that 13-episode order for Sleepy Hollow that unexpectedly made Fox a player in a timeslot where it spent last year struggling, there are several that just don’t work or that feel ever-so-slightly desperate, like the choice to resurrect 24 this summer for a limited series that will surely draw solid ratings but seems unlikely to break new creative ground for the franchise. (In an earlier panel for that show, producers confirmed that the show would tackle drone warfare and NSA surveillance, which should be… fun.) Of all the broadcast network execs, Reilly is the one who’s most willing to take chances, but he’s also the guy who often announces that he’s taking those chances, then quietly backs off in the years to come when the system proves too intractable. To be sure, his announcement of the death of pilot season is the biggest strike against the system from him yet, but it’s one thing to say you’re going to kill off pilot season, and it’s quite another to actually do it.

In other Fox news:

  • In terms of sheer numbers, Fox is currently working on 10 projects that it already has ordered to some form of series going forward, with no guarantee on when they’ll debut. Some might even show up in summer of 2015. (This is probably the best bet for Grace Point.) At one point last year, Reilly said, the network was developing 42 series simultaneously, which is insane. That number includes Gotham, which Sean has more on here.
  • In the post-session scrum, Reilly confirmed that the rest of Glee season five will move to New York from Lima, though Jane Lynch will apparently still be on the show, because Sue Sylvester is eternal. The Hollywood Reporter has more.
  • Reilly is all in on Dads, insisting that he finds the show funny and that journalists and critics have privately told him they do too. Well, you didn’t hear that from me, Kev. Still, with the show’s slumping ratings and reduced episode order, he may not have his beloved Dads to laugh at for long.
  • The X Factor is not yet canceled, but if it comes back, it won’t look like the X Factor of the first three seasons. Reilly said the show has undergone format shifts in other countries and come back bigger than ever, so we might be stuck with this one for a while, everybody.
  • In viewership numbers, Fox is up over the 2012-13 season 44 percent for video on-demand and 55 percent on Hulu. No wonder Reilly is the network exec who stumps the most for finding ways to monetize these platforms.
  • In premiere date news, Fox will debut the new mini-season of 24 on Monday, May 5. Surviving Jack, the new Bill Lawrence ‘90s nostalgia sitcom, will debut Thursday, March 27, and the drama Gang Related will launch Tuesday, May 20. Also, there’s that Seth MacFarlane-produced Cosmos remake, which will debut Sunday, March 9, on Fox, then air the night after on the National Geographic Channel.
  • Among the comedies Reilly mentioned as being in active development are the John Mulaney project, as well as new projects from the team of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23’s Nahnatchka Khan. If Fox can get all of those to pop, then keep its current comedies (sans Dads) on the air somehow (hang in there, Enlisted), it’ll have a broadcast comedy lineup to rival any in network TV history. Godspeed, Fox.