TV Pilots: An Endangered Species?

While TV networks traditionally commission dozens of scripts for pilot episodes, only some are actually produced and far fewer turn into series. Now several studios say they will cut back on pilots. Marti Noxon, an executive for ABC's Private Practice, talks about how a reduced pilot-production schedule might affect audiences, TV writers and the studios.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, a pitch-perfect political speech.

But first, several TV networks have all but pledged to change the way they develop and debut programs. NBC Universal was the first to say it will scale back the number of pilot scripts it orders. CBS, FOX, The CW, also plan to cut production of pilots. The lost of revenue during the writers' strike seems to be one reason but all the networks are interested in trying to reduce the cost of developing and making new TV programs.

Marti Noxon joins us. She's a former executive producer for "Grey's Anatomy" and served as show runner for "Private Practice" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MARTI NOXON (TV Writer/Producer): Oh, my pleasure.

SIMON: And do you think this is going to affect the way you do business?

Ms. NOXON: You know, short term, absolutely, although what's interesting is NBC actually said they were going to order fewer pilots but as many first episode scripts, which means, their plan is to order lots of scripts and no longer make pilots but actually go from script to series.

So what they're going to do is order six episodes instead of just a pilot. But, you know, short term, the fact that a lot of pilots around town are just not going to get shot, it absolutely impacts everybody.

SIMON: Well, explain how.

Ms. NOXON: There's a very big business in work that never gets seen by the general public here. A lot of writers have written countless pilots that never get made, or countless pilots that got made but never got ordered to series. So there's a real industry in unseen entertainment, and that's going to shrink for a while.

SIMON: From the audience's point of view, is it going to be harder for, let's say, a show that's quirky and not immediately apparent on the printed page as to what its terms could be, but somebody makes a pilot and somebody likes it -harder for those kinds of shows to get picked up?

Ms. NOXON: Yeah, obviously. I think the reason that networks have ordered so many shows is because of that unpredictability. You know, there can be a wonderful pilot on the page, and any number of intangibles, you know, end up making not such a great show. And the opposite is true, which is why they take such - in the past, they've taken such a broad approach to development. You make a lot of pilots and often are surprised by the results, you know, the ones that turn out and the ones that don't.

SIMON: Can you give us some idea just based on your own experience, Ms. Noxon, as to how many pilots of a given season will get produced, and how many go nowhere?

Ms. NOXON: It's typical that as many as 40 to 60 scripts get ordered, 10 to 16 pilots get made, and then anywhere between four to eight actually get on the air.

SIMON: Networks said that they need to dramatically cut costs. Can we appreciate how expensive it is to just put on a pilot?

Ms. NOXON: It is kind of stunning how much money goes into the development process. I mean, a pilot can cost anywhere from two to $8 million. As the writers on strike, I've been looking at the economics of the business, and I know how much money is at stake if something works. So it all kind of makes sense when you crunch the numbers that way.

SIMON: The networks have been famous in recent years for pulling the plug on a series after sometimes just one or two episodes. Do you think this will make networks less likely to pull the plug so early on shows because they don't have as many things in the pipeline to replace them?

Ms. NOXON: I actually think that would be a good result of this. I don't know. I think that it would be great. In some cases where something is just a little corky or need some time to get on its feet if they did let it breathe a little bit. And certainly, some shows have proven to be a success after a year or more.

SIMON: A truncated pilot season will, among other things, mean employment for fewer writers, it sounds like.

Ms. NOXON: You know, what's interesting is this contraction as a business is really more of a reflection of these much bigger changes going on, which I believe that in the next five years, network television won't look anything like it does now. And in some cases, I think that'll be good for the viewer. They're going to have a lot more control over what they watch. They're probably going to be able to go onto an NBC site and pick the show they want to see when they want to see it, just like they'll be able to do with HBO pretty soon.

Is this good news for writers? I think, creatively, it might be really good news for us because there'll be more time to develop projects. But, financially, I think there's just going to be a big shift in the business. And I think in terms of finances, yeah, well, I think it's all changed. And I think there's going to be a less money per project.

SIMON: Marti Noxon, show-runner for "Private Practice." And she also served as executive producer last season on "Grey's Anatomy."

Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. NOXON: My pleasure.

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