On March 29, the Los Angeles Times ran a front cover story titled: “How COVID-19 changes landscape of TV pilot season.” It is a very timely and informative topic. In fact, VideoAge‘s L.A. contributor, producer Mike Reynolds, was already working on a piece on that very theme for the magazine’s weekly Water Cooler feature.
The story in the Times offered a mostly gloomy outlook, but managed to sprinkle in some hints of hope. Reynolds’ take was similar.
The coronavirus caused the shutdown of a number of pilots for the new U.S. TV season — a production period that typically runs from late February to early May — that injects an estimated $500 million in annual spending into the L.A. entertainment economy.
For the 2020-2021 TV season, the five major U.S. broadcast networks have commissioned 32 dramas and 28 comedies from the studios. These are in addition to other series commissioned by cable and pay-TV outlets.
The networks will need to replace at least 20 series that have already been canceled or were scheduled to end this year.
According to the Times, ABC picked up its last pilot on March 9, one week before the production shutdown. Only one pilot, CBS’s B Positive, had finished shooting before production halted.
The Times quoted producers and studio executives as saying that it is doubtful that full-scale TV production could resume before June or July. Several network executives have predicted that new scripted shows might not be ready to air until November or even January.
In its May 2007 edition, VideoAge reported on a similar situation during the bitter Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-08, when only a handful of TV episodes could be produced. Despite the situation, the industry managed to cope. And now it is adapting to a new and more dramatic situation by keeping many of the pilots alive, particularly those that have already received series commitments and straight-to-series orders. The networks have thus far ordered nine straight-to-series shows, and might even give a second look at pilots originally refused a green light as there will soon be a higher demand for new content.
The Times also reported that networks have begun asking show producers to submit scripts for possible second episodes so they can better evaluate a show’s prospects, and network executives can narrow the field without shooting any video, thus saving time and money. Plus, if a show is picked up, the process will put producers further ahead as they will have a second episode ready to go when they are able to resume production. In addition, wrote the Times, series that were on the verge of being canceled might actually get renewed since networks consider them a safer bet as they already have casts, crews, and writers’ rooms assembled, as well as viewing audiences.
The Times‘ story also made the important point that the upfront process is not anachronistic, but is a functioning market that brings in around $7 billion in advertising commitments in just a few weeks. The paper quoted Gary Newman, a former co-CEO of the FOX network, as saying, “It would be chaos if you were to lose that process.”
On March 12, reps for each of the networks announced that although the live Upfronts were canceled, some form of streaming presentation would take place.
Similarly, following the cancellation of the live L.A. Screenings event, Sony Pictures Television was the first to announce that it would show its latest content offerings to would-be global buyers in May (when the L.A. Screenings would have taken place) via “a virtual and on-demand screening experience.”