The Fast Five: Networks Are Risking Less During Pilot Season as Cost of Television Skyrockets
September 3, 2019
Here’s hoping everyone enjoyed their Labor Day weekend, and watched Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, which is—in my humble opinion—a legally mandated long weekend tradition. Now that we’re back to the grind, here’s the TV news everyone will be buzzing about.
NETWORK PILOTS ARE ON THE DECLINE
Five years ago Fox took the brave step of announcing the death of pilot season. While that didn’t exactly work out the way the network imagined (mainly because it still followed the pilot season timeline, but just ordered everything straight-to-series), maybe they were on to something. Ampere Analysis conducted an independent investigation and discovered that the number of pilots ordered by American networks is down over 30% from when Fox made its declaration. In 2015, ABC, CBS, CW, Fox and NBC ordered 106 pilots. That number has dropped 32% to 73. So, what’s the reason? The automatic assumption would be that networks are more targeted with what they want instead of casting a wide net and seeing what sticks. However, while the number of pilots moving on to series has remained at 45%, it means less pilots and less series orders as the overall number dwindles.
Ampere Analysis speculates the reason is an increase in straight-to-series reboots and spin-offs as well as the skyrocketing cost of television. When Apple is spending the same amount of money on a morning talk show drama as HBO did on Game of Thrones, networks will have to increase spending if they want to remain competitive. This leaves less money for that category of pilots that the network knows it won’t order to series, but funds anyway on the off chance one happens to be a diamond in the rough. While this new practice may be frustrating, the increase in straight-to-series orders allows the creators to focus on their show as a whole instead of throwing every twist and turn possible into the pilot to increase the chances of getting a pick-up—a practice that often results in a pilot episode that’s not an accurate representation of the show, and infuriating for audiences.
Now this is what people are worried about when they discuss media monopolies. Rumor is, Comcast will be dropping the Starz lineup of channels from its service when the current contract expires. Is this a tough negotiation tactic? Probably. I fully expect to see female Comcast subscribers salivating over Outlander when it returns in 2020. But it also demonstrates the sheer power these media conglomerates have. Comcast makes up a third of all Starz subscribers, so the threat alone was enough to make Lionsgate’s shares drop almost 10% to its lowest numbers since 2012.
CBS attempted to buy Starz for $5 billion earlier this year, slightly higher than the $4.4 the studio paid three years ago, but Lionsgate turned down the offer. Carriage deals get trickier every year with the networks and providers each wanting more lucrative terms, so expect Lionsgate to offload Starz if they receive a good enough offer. And don’t be shocked if that offer actually comes from Comcast, who’s gearing up to launch an NBCUniversal streaming service that could use the boost of a premium cable network, the one thing missing from Comcast’s portfolio. Is Comcast’s master plan to devalue Starz by dropping it so they can buy it for its streaming library? Time will tell if Starz programs like Power, Outlander and American Gods will stream on NBCUniversal’s new service in the future.
Companies around the world are feeling the Netflix squeeze. The only way to get free, it seems? Invest in content. France’s Canal+ announced it will increase its annual content budget for original productions by 50%, from €60 million to €90 million, in 2020. A lot of European broadcasters and studios had embraced Netflix coming to town because it gave them a new buyer with deep pockets that helped fund content by picking up streaming rights, something that wasn’t in huge demand at the time. The problem: Netflix set down roots in those countries and started converting viewers from traditional television. Now Amazon, Apple and Disney are rolling into town too, and the broadcasters are getting nervous. With Netflix deciding to invest in its own content instead of licensing it from rivals, that source of income is drying up and viewers are going to remain loyal to the place that has the shows they want to see. The only way to remain competitive and get the top local talent is to spend more—and hope one of these projects becomes the next must-see television series.
Only a couple of months after making her TV debut in What/If, actress Renée Zellweger signed a two-year first-look deal with MGM Television under her Big Picture Company banner. This summer will be remembered as the arms-race between TV studios to lock down talent with exclusive overall deals, and Renée Zellweger is capitalizing on that to cash in. The deal will not only be used to develop shows for her to star in, but will also to create material for her to direct. Instead of waiting around for studios to create projects with meaty roles that speak to them, more and more actresses are choosing to launch their own production companies and hire a team to develop the type of stories they want to tell. The Oscar®-winning actress took six years off from acting before coming back with Bridget Jones’s Baby in 2016, Judy and Netflix’s cult favorite What/If, where every time she stares through a window, she summons a CGI lightning storm. Hopefully that’s the kind of material she’s interested in directing, because TV needs more fun stuff like that.
While live ratings may continue to erode for the most part on cable and network television, Yellowstone proves that the right show at the right time can still grow an audience. Maybe it’s the late summer launch when most cable competition has already wrapped, or maybe it’s just good word of mouth, but the Taylor Sheridan and John Linson-created drama starring Kevin Costner hit a new series high with its season two finale getting a 0.59 rating in the 18-49 demographic. Generally, any scripted cable show that averages above a 0.30 is considered a hit, so these are numbers the Paramount Network must be ecstatic about. Yellowstone wasn’t alone in bringing in viewers though, as Snowfall, airing at the same time on the same night, also managed to hit a season high over on FX with a 0.42. This is a good reminder when anybody discusses the downfall of traditional television that audiences will still show up on a weekly basis when they connect to the right story.
Written by: Conrad SylviaConrad Sylvia is the creator of the The Week in Television, a private industry newsletter that recaps the week's television news in a humorous and unique manner. Throughout the years he has developed projects for studios and production companies and continues to provide freelance research on the current television landscape and international marketplace. He is also a fan of drinking in the bathtub. A full tub if he's happy, an empty tub if he's sad.