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US networks drop pilots, aping SVoD

August 29, 2019

Research by Ampere Analysis investigates the use of pilot episodes by the five largest broadcasters in the US: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW. The exclusive analysis finds that the number of pilots ordered by US broadcasters has decreased by one third (32 per cent) over last four years, dropping from 106 titles a year in 2015 to just 73 titles by 2019, despite the same number of new series being produced.

Although the number of pilots has fallen, the proportion progressing to series has remained consistent, at 45 per cent. US networks seem to be adopting the strategies of the SVoD players where pilots are used far less, if at all. But with a levelling out effect seen in the last year, does this signal the end of the pilot episode?

Why the networks are dropping pilots

Fred Black, Ampere Analysis Analyst said: “There’s no one model that the networks have adopted as they move away from pilots, rather they have opted a range of development options, including reboots and spin-offs, co-production, remakes, and straight-to-series. What’s interesting is that the use of pilots, having declined sharply from 2015 to 2018, appears to be stabilising – having fallen by only one in last year*.”

Ampere Analysis has noted several reasons for the migration away from pilots including:

  • A rise of the ‘reboot culture’, where previous shows with established audiences (in the form of reboots, spin-offs) negate the need for networks to order pilots
  • The escalating cost of content is an important factor. Some series cost up to $20m per episode, so broadcasters are mitigating costs by ordering fewer pilot episodes.

Drama hits a five-year low in 2019

  • Drama hit a five-year-low in terms of number of pilots commissioned in 2019, with only six projects successfully moving beyond the pilot stage.

Comedy is the most ordered genre for pilots

  • Comedy accounts for over half of all pilot orders, and is the only genre maintaining the same number of pilots year-on-year, averaging 35
  • In 2015, the distribution of pilots was relatively even between Comedy, Crime & Thriller and Drama, with Sci-Fi & Fantasy a smaller proportion. Over the last four seasons, Crime & Thriller and Drama pilots have fallen away. 2019 saw more Comedy pilots than in the other three genres combined
  • Although fewer Sci-Fi pilots are commissioned than in any other genre, proportionally more have progressed to series across the past five seasons than any other genre. Only 45 Sci-Fi & Fantasy pilots were commissioned over the five networks between 2015 and 2019, but 60 per cent successfully progressed to a full season order
  • Sci-Fi was the worst performer in terms of conversion rates from pilot to series in the most recent season
  • Proportionally, Crime & Thriller has a high success rate, and has been the most successful genre in 2019 at converting pilot commissions into series orders. This suggests interest in the Sci-Fi & Fantasy space is fading amongst the broadcast networks, with Crime the new focus.

ABC is the only Big Four Network not scaling back its pilot orders

  • ABC commissioned the most pilots, but took fewer to series than all broadcasters except for The CW
  • The broadcaster made 26 pilots in the 2019 season but only six successfully progressed to the series order stage
  • Its primary focus was on Comedy, with 12 pilots. However, only two progressed to series – multicultural family sitcom United We Fall and Black-Ish spin-off Mixed-Ish.

Most talked about new series coming in fall 2019
ABC: Stumptown (Thriller) and Mixed-ish (Comedy)
CBS: Evil (Sci-Fi) and All Rise (Crime)
Fox: NeXT (Sci-Fi) and Deputy (Crime)
NBC: Indebted (Comedy) and Lincoln (Crime)
CW: Nancy Drew (Crime) and Batwoman (Sci-Fi)

Black added: “At the moment, American broadcasters receive elevator pitches for the following year’s new shows in the summer. In fall they order scripts for the most promising concepts, and commission pilots the following January. Based on the response to the pilots, a series is progressed or dropped. However, our analysis from 2015 shows how increasingly concepts and scripts have leapfrogged the pilot phase and gone straight to series as broadcasters mimic the approach of the SVoD giants who often eschew the pilot phase altogether. In the last year we’ve seen a sea change, and the number of pilots created by the broadcasters has stabilised, so we’ll be watching this space clearly to see how the trend develops.”


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