Upfronts Part Two: Pilots 101

A pilot is two things: A) The person behind the wheel when you’re flying.  B) The first episode of a new TV show.

In this week’s Upfronts the networks revealed, in varying detail, many of their new shows which will begin in September.  The networks make a big deal of this, and it can turn into a real show piece, all trying to demonstrate why they deserve a bigger piece of the advertising pie.

With Pay-TV becoming just as big a force as network TV in recent years, and the fact that they do not conform to the September-May ratings period the networks use, the new season of shows starting in September is far less of a rule than it used to be.  Pay TV channels like HBO, Showtime, and FX start their new shows at all times of the year, not necessarily waiting to begin in September as the traditional network model has dictated.

Even the networks have begun to buck the trend recently, with many shows not beginning until January this allows them the luxury of screening a new episode every week.

The biggest advantage of this format for viewers is that they don’t have to suffer frequent reruns of old episodes, which can often turn viewers off as it just becomes too much work to keep up and remember when a new episode is on.  Think about it, in the US they have to stretch 22 episodes out over almost 9 months, which could mean 14 or more weeks that they have to fill with either a repeat or a whole different show.

This gives the networks a few options:

A) Show 3 or 4 new episodes every 6 weeks, and fill the other weeks with something else, which is what has traditionally been what they’ve done.

B) Show the whole season back to back with a new episode every week.  24 and Lost are both shows that have used this format to their advantage, and are prime examples of how this works as creatively they obviously both benefit from not having long gaps between new episodes where people can forget what’s happening.

C) Have only a few one week breaks in the season which extends it slightly.  The approach Lost employed this season (two one week breaks over 17 episodes – although the first and last episodes were both double episodes).

D) Break the season in two – run the first half back to back, take a big break in the middle, then show the rest.  Lost tried this a couple of years ago and it didn’t really work for them, Prison Break also did it the last two years.

In New Zealand they always used to do either B or C, with the new shows they thought were going to rate the best starting in February and running (more or less) until they ran out of new episodes.  In the last couple of years they’ve begun to change their model here too, with the occasional show starting in about November and airing new episodes close(r) to the US airdates.  In Australia it’s not uncommon for episodes of their most popular shows (I know they did this for House) to air 48 hours or less after they do in the US.  The downside of starting the new episodes sooner obviously being that you’re going to have to put up with a break or some repeats during the season.  Some shows, typically the procedurals that have standalone episodes with little or no major continuing storylines, aren’t at all affected by this.  For a while there I felt like there was either a Law and Order or CSI on every single night of the week, and half the time you can never tell where it falls within their limited continuity.  Which is the beauty of them, and precisely why they’ll be in repeats forever.  Other shows, the serials that rely heavily on long storylines drawn out over weeks, months, or the whole season, can really suffer from those breaks.  Sometimes it can cost them heavily in lost viewers, and sometimes it’s heavy enough for the show to get cancelled.

My personal preference is to not wait weeks from one new episode to the next, although I guess that viewpoint is strongly influenced by my love of serialised shows like Lost or Dexter.  When I’m wrapped up in the world of a show I don’t even like to have to wait seven days for my next fix, which is one reason my shelves are bursting with TV shows on DVD.  But I certainly prefer one episode a week to getting a couple, then nothing for a week or two, then a new one, then another gap…

So are you like me and prefer to watch one episode after another of a continuing storyline like chapters in a novel?

Are you happy to get a new episode episode weekly?

Do a few weeks of repeats bother you?

Or do you not care, and just watch whatever’s on TV when you turn it on?  (If you’re the person keeping Wife Swap on TV, please stop)

Come back next week for “Upfronts Part Three: New Pilots 2009”

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About the author

Hhhmmmm, what to write in my bio... Saying I love TV seems a little unnecessary, saying I watch too much of it seems like an understatement, and saying I own stacks of TV shows on DVD just seems like showing off, so I won't say any of those things. My name's Kerry, and I'm addicted to TV...
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