Lights Going Out on Pilots

The Mindy Project might need a name change. Mindy Kaling’s show’s moniker, a nod to the nondescript title given to many television pilots, is in danger of becoming outdated very soon.

Fox Broadcasting Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly sent shockwaves through the industry when he told the Television Critics Association that the network was no longer going to participate in the traditional pilot season, when a number of prospective TV shows are rushed into production for an initial episode so that executives can decide which ones to add to their schedule. Pilot season has been an ingrained way of doing business for TV networks and producers for so long that it’s hard to imagine it disappearing.

The time is right, however, for the other networks to follow Fox’s lead and get rid of the outdated model. The simple fact is that most pilots are a waste of time and money. There are advantages for the people involved in the production of the shows, since pilot season has traditionally been one of the busiest times in Hollywood with everyone from actors to grips to caterers getting an extra payday. The issue is the quality of the pilots themselves.

Writers languish for months over pilot scripts, since they are a project’s initial calling card. When a network orders a pilot, though, the rush to get the work from page to screen typically leads to a harried work environment. Many good ideas and scripts have been killed by the execution of the pilot as time and money take precedence over creativity and craftsmanship.

Reilly pointed to the model used by cable networks where shows are developed more slowly and in an ongoing fashion, with only the shows that the network is truly interested in airing going into even initial production. He also noted the success that cable has had with shorter seasons — something that was borrowed from the British tradition of doing compact runs of shows.

As much fun as it might have been to wonder what The Coolio Project was like when it appeared on production lists — or better still to get a copy of the unintentionally hilarious results — the creative process works better with more time and patience.

It’s time for the other networks to follow Fox and dim the lights on the traditional way of doing pilots. The creative energies of all involved would be better served elsewhere.