Fall TV Pilot Season: Sink or Swim in Minutes

The return of Will & Grace

Photo courtesy of NBC

How important are the Fall Pilots?

In the current entertainment climate, a show will often sink or swim based solely the performance of the pilot. Thus all the hype around the “New Fall Shows” before they even air. A lot is riding on that first episode. A lot of careers are riding on that first episode. But should it work that way?

Consider this:

  1. We all know that a show often takes several episodes to find its ‘rhythm’ and its audience.
  2. A Netflix study this time last year proved that the average viewer isn’t hooked on a series until episode 4. By then, 70% of viewers will watch the rest of the season.

So, Netflix has their magic formula. But the variable here is binge-watching. With streaming or on-demand shows, the commitment to watch follow-on episodes seems much lower than on traditional network television. These days, having to wait a week to watch the next episode seems like a commitment worthy of a ring! That’s why, as far as Network TV is concerned, these pilots matter whole a lot more.

Viewers know when you’ve got a winner

Through testing, network executives know that within those first 15 minutes, viewers decide if the show is quality and if it will be a lasting success. Any premiere that loses 30% of its audience by ‘half time’ is on the not-so-short cancellation list. (for more behind-the-scenes info on entertainment research, see our interview with Aaron Paquette, formerly of Vision Critical.)

We find the number of Fall pilot fails very interesting. Dear Network Executives, If the average viewer can tell you in 15 minutes then…. couldn’t you have tested it in advance? Wouldn’t that have saved you a lot of time? Yes, of course you can and yes, it would.  We’ve done our share of dial testing focus groups to test pilots for every major network at one time or another. (editorial comment: clearly, they need to be doing a lot more of this.)

Pilot Season 2017

All the research in the world can not forecast the intangible. The viral nature of a hit. (the Game of Thrones type chatter through social media and word of mouth.) These types of Megahits are few and far between, and they are even harder to accomplish in the comedy category. A perfect comedy seems like some combination of potions that, when poured together, produce lightning in a bottle.

For example, look at the run that Veep and Modern Family have had—both in the ratings and at the Emmy’s. Beyond the quality writing, they are also standouts due to the lack of competition.

When is a “pilot” not really a pilot?

That is why one of the most talked about new shows this Fall is the RETURN of Will & Grace this Thursday night.  With how challenging it is to come up with a winning comedy, you can certainly understand the appeal of going back to a sure thing. We hope. (find one of many early reviews here.)

Let the ratings begin.

Get more on that Netflix study here.