It has been widely reported that ABC TV network is A) planning to do away with its pilot season, B) that the network will only order straight-to-series programs, and C) that the network has started veering toward a streaming production model.

One might say that this ABC strategy of straight-to-series shows that’s being envisioned by the ABC TV Network is a good, proven system for drama series with small episode orders, but experience tells us that it doesn’t work for comedies, where the chemistry between (and among) protagonists doesn’t usually pop up from the script pages –– it has to be seen onscreen.

Contacted via Zoom, James Norman, co-founder and CEO of Pilotly, an Oakland, California-based research company, explained that if you want to see if a pilot works, it needs to be tested. “We don’t to interfere with the creatives, but simply furnish quality data of the elements people enjoy the most in an episode,” he said. In addition to pilots, Pilotly also tests individual episodes or a series of episodes.

“Pilot- and episode-testing are very important,” he said, noting that this coming September Pilotly plans to hold a virtual focus group platform for pilot testing that will replicate the way people actually interact when they meet. Up until now Pilotly has replaced test screenings in shopping malls and Las Vegas hotels with at-home panels, wherein people stream content online and provide real-time feedback without fear of piracy, while at the same time increasing the size of the test audience. This “asynchronous” system (as Norman calls it) will be replaced with focus groups that meet in real time on Zoom.

And with regard to replicating the streaming business with its year-round production schedule, some experts believe that that won’t be all that feasible because the broadcasting model relies on advertisers, while the VoD model depends on subscribers. It’s hard to imagine how network sales departments would be able to pre-sell airtime on a continuous programming schedule. With the current pilot season, advertisers know what they’re buying into and when to reserve the TV spots. The traditional Upfront system reduces the whole TV spot buying and selling process to a relatively simple procedure of scheduling, rates, discounts, and make-goods.

The New York City-based Association of National Advertisers (ANA), for example, doesn’t want the Upfronts to be scrapped. Bob Liodice, CEO of ANA, advocates a shift from a broadcast Upfront (which takes place ahead of the new season) to a calendar Upfront, which would run from January to December. The ANA reports define a “calendar year” by explaining that “a regular comment heard from every media seller during our discussions was that they are open for business 52 weeks a year. They said it different ways, but the intent was the same: We are open for business 52 weeks a year. We’ll be ready when the time is right. We will be ready when you are. When a customer comes to us, we are ready. We don’t decide the timing; the advertisers do. We will do deals whenever advertisers are ready. We will be there now, September, January, whenever.”

Many advertisers base their fiscal years on the calendar. Buying television time for a period between this October and next September misaligns with that calendar-based fiscal timing.

If the new season is moved to a calendar year, pre-selling would start at the same time as the announcement of the new schedule in October, and new series orders would be given throughout the year. John Wolfe, ANA’s spokesperson, specified to VideoAge that, “negotiations with the networks would take place between September and November, when marketers and their agencies would purchase airtime for the following January through December 2021 time period.”

However, according one of the two ANA reports issued in May, “uncertainty of the programming available to buy is also a concern,” to ANA members. In addition, the reports said, having “access to premium, quality programming, would also be an issue” as “marketers believe in safe, consumer-friendly environments to surround our messages. We value what premium video media sellers bring to the market and look forward to their growth,” ANA’s analysts stated in the documents.

ANA’s reports also pointed out that, with the current model, “Sellers largely control the information. Sellers require advertisers — and the agencies on their behalf — to ‘register’ budgets for the Upfront. This gives sellers the market intelligence to know how much money can potentially be invested in the Upfront and set prices accordingly. Why would the network give up that advantage?”

With a yearly production schedule the network could go on a Programmatic-type model where it would put all its avails on a computer system and advertisers would program to automatically pick the best spots to advertise based on rates, demos, and time slots. Programmatic is the basis with which Blockgraph, a new TV ad sales tool, works. But while Programmatic is designed for last-minute ad sales by local TV stations, Blockgraph is geared toward a cluster of cable TV channels. And these two computerized systems should not be confused with the scatter market, which traditionally involves higher rates for last-minute buys.

Meanwhile, late last July, ad agencies and clients began “talking” to the major U.S. broadcast networks in a way that resembled the Upfronts, and this is predicted to last up until September. The difference this year is that the scatter market is expected to be stronger than the pre-buys. Nonetheless, both sides started negotiations, with contrasting expectations, with the networks asking for CPM increases and the advertisers demanding CPM rollbacks or leveling, despite increases in viewership.

With this backdrop in mind, Paris-based Publicis Groupe, the world’s third largest advertising agency conglomerate (which includes agencies such as Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi), reported that its second-quarter revenue fell 6.8 percent in the U.S., compared with a year earlier. Excluding political campaigns, ad spending in the U.S. is expected to decrease 13 percent this year. Last December’s forecast had predicted a four percent increase.

Then there is the question — or better the confusion — over new production definitions like “Film in the fall,” to indicate pilots shot in the fall, and “Roll over to second cycle,” which could mean that a project will turn into a pilot for the midseason or the following season. In either case there is no commitment, but the network isn’t letting go of the project. “Roll over to second cycle” could also be on an “as necessary basis,” meaning that if another series doesn’t go as envisioned, a pilot could be commissioned earlier than expected.

“Roll over to second cycle” could also represent a replacement series. Some Hollywood studios, like Warner Bros., don’t call it “second cycle,” but “off-cycle,” in the sense that a pilot is shot outside the traditional February-April schedule, making it “off-cycle,” or part of a “second cycle.”

Finally, “Rolled over for next season,” means for the following year, in this case for the 2021-2022 season.

by Dom Serafini

Audio Version (a DV Works service)

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