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Research: TV pilots in descent

August 13, 2018

Research from Ampere Analysis has shown that pilot episodes are losing their position as a mainstay in broadcast network’s commissioning culture. From 2015 to 2018 the volume of pilot episodes ordered by the major US networks decreased by a sharp 33 per cent. So, do pilots have a place in television or are they sat in the ejector seat?

SVoD platforms have heavily influenced the linear television channels. For instance, at Netflix it is the norm for scripts to progress to series without a pilot. These players have a huge data pool and established methodology which helps them quickly determine a series success, thus bypassing the need for a pilot. Research by Ampere Analysis has identified evidence that a series having a pilot episode determines little over whether it is renewed after a first season. It does, however, suggest that series with pilots are more likely to survive beyond their second season. Accompanying the recent upsurge in interest in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, proportionally series in this genre are more successful in progressing from pilot episode to a season compared with any other, especially Comedy where unsuccessful pilots outweigh successful full season commissions.


TV pilots in descent
Across the five largest broadcasters in the US (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC), there has been a rapid decrease from 106 pilot episodes per year in 2015, to just 73 in total for 2017. Ampere’s research suggests that the selection process for pilot orders has not become more accurate in predicting audience reactions to a new series. On average 43 per cent of pilot episodes progress to a series order (although 2018 saw a notable downturn). However, there has been little change in the overall number of series commissioned. An increase across linear and digital networks in spin-off shows and reboots of old series has been identified as a factor in pilot decline, two of The CW’s most anticipated shows for autumn, Charmed and Roswell, are reboots of old Sci-Fi shows.

A successful pilot doesn’t give a series wings
Ampere’s analysis shows that a pilot is far from a prerequisite for series success. Between 2015 and 2018, 64 per cent of all series that did not have a pilot episode were cancelled after only one season. 56 per cent of series that had a pilot episode were also cancelled after one season.

Digital players change course
Ampere Analysis research finds SVoD players have been influential in shaping traditional networks’ commissioning processes. Despite its huge multi-season success with The Crown and Orange Is the New Black, Netflix doesn’t use pilot episodes to predict the success of its Original Series. However, despite their use of big data, between 2012 and 2018 only 39 per cent of series progressed beyond a first season, very similar to the 40 per cent of series that make it to a second season on linear channels. This suggests Netflix’s methodology and data analytics aren’t necessarily better at predicting series success.

Additional analysis shows that 63 per cent of shows without pilots on major networks were cancelled in their second or later season, compared to a similar figure of 67 per cent of Netflix titles that also failed to continue to a third or later season.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy wins
Sci-Fi and Fantasy pilots are commissioned proportionally more than any other genre. Of the 37 Sci-Fi and Fantasy pilots ordered between 2015 and 2018 by the major networks, 67 per cent were picked up for a full order. The reason for continually high comedy pilots can be attributed to lower production costs compared with other genres.

Drama and Comedy content increased in 2017, at the expense of Crime & Thriller content, which was the most commissioned content in 2015 and 2016. The majority of content ordered to series was Comedy, while Sci-Fi & Fantasy titles continue to represent a low proportion of network television ordered to series.

Crime slashes Drama in season renewal
However, Drama appears to be the most unlikely genre proportionally to progress to a second season. Between 2015 and 2018, three quarters (76 per cent) of cancelled Drama titles were pulled after their first season. This compares to 54 per cent of Crime and Thriller titles being slashed, so statistically this genre delivers a higher return on initial investment than Drama.

Destination unknown
Ampere research suggests that beyond the first season there is a correlation between piloting and later season renewal, with 63 per cent of shows without pilots on major networks being cancelled in their second or later season. Supporting this, ‘reboot culture’ does not confirm that previously successful franchises guarantee success, which the rapid rise and fall of shows like MADtv, and CSI: Cyber has proven.

Olivia Deane, Analyst at Ampere Analysis says: “The big networks have been influenced hugely by SVoD player’s in their commissioning process. Services such as Netflix now no longer need to rely on pilots for new shows as they’ve been able to interrogate big data to determine what’s successful, saving time and money on ordering scores of unsuccessful pilots. However, commissioners should not apply a one-size-fits-all approach. The data proves that while piloting doesn’t seem to improve a series’ likelihood of success beyond a first series, it can be a precursor for success in the long run.”

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