Since the birth of the television, broadcast networks and studios have followed a regimented yearly schedule which leads to getting scripted shows on the air. While cable networks don’t have a strict schedule and basically accept pitches and staff shows year round, broadcast networks had always stuck by the same schedule for decades. Just like how we’re all aware of the four seasons when it comes to climate, anyone looking to work with any of the five broadcast networks is well aware their three seasons:
DEVELOPMENT SEASON / July – November
For scripted television (both comedy and drama) this is where it all begins. Each network gathers its executives together at the end of June to determine what their needs and objectives are when it comes to scripted content. They will then reach out to the respective agents and studios to let them know what they’re looking from. Production companies, agents, managers, writers and studios will prepare pitches and package them in a way which best suits the show before bringing them to the network. Usually production companies (especially ones with studio deals) will find material from writers or actors and then pitch them to studios. Some times studios will come up with their own property and find the appropriate production company to attach. Either way, the art of packaging at TV show is different for each show. The conventional way, as mentioned earlier, is for the show to have a studio, production company and a showrunner attached before bringing to network. When you read in the trades that a network has picked up a show, you will usually see that it has a writer, studio and at least one production company attached. Some productions companies without studio deals will go straight to the network and from there, choose the best studio to work with. Some times it helps to have director attached for the pilot episode, especially (as we are starting to see more and more) if it’s a feature film director with great credits. In most cases, especially drama, you don’t need to attach cast to the show in order to sell. This is usually done after the sale. But some times in comedy you need a great talent attached in order to sell the show. For example, NEW GIRL wouldn’t have been sold without Zooey Deschanel attached. Once the pitch has been sold, the writer will then have until the end of November or early December to write the pilot script. From there, the networks will then take all the scripts and decide which to produce into pilots. Another rarity is spec pilots. More and more writers, especially non-established ones who are looking to break in to the business, will write a pilot on spec hoping to sell it once it’s written. Traditionally, networks and studios prefer to buy pitches so that they can mold it to fit their brand and needs, but some times it takes a fleshed out script to really sell the idea and the characters behind the show. Some notable spec pilot sales include DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, STUDIO 60, IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILIDELPHIA, POLITICAL ANIMALS.
PILOT SEASON / January – May
This time of year is crazy for actors, directors, producers and crew members. This is when production companies and studios produce pilots that have been ordered by the networks. Of the 80-100 scripts that were ordered, only about 20 of them will be shot. This calculates to about $200-$250 million spent each year, per network on pilot production. Most studios and networks spend more money on pilots than they would a regular episode of television. LOST, for example had a budget of $14M when each subsequent episode cost about $5M. Once the slate of pilots have been decided, production companies and studios will get to work with crewing up and casting. If there isn’t already a director attached, this will be the first line of business. Each show scrambles throughout town to fight for the best director for their pilot. By the end of December, most shows will have their directors hired and then the fun part begins – CASTING! January is the most crazy time for aspiring actors as each show will hold auditions for all their roles. If the show gets ordered to series, it could mean the launch of an actor’s career. Once casting is complete, the production companies push to get their pilots shot by May. Then comes the moment of truth where all the networks decide which show they are going to be ordered to series. It’s the moment of the highest anxiety for production companies because, even though to slaved the past 5 months to get their pilot made, all their work could come to an end if the network doesn’t approve of the pilot and doesn’t order it to series.
STAFFING SEASON / May – June
If you’re a TV lit agent or manager, this is the most insane time of the year for you as you are trying to make sure all of your clients have jobs for the upcoming year. The minute the networks announce which shows are being ordered to series, the agents and managers immediately reach out to the studios and productions companies, pitch their clients to them and send them their writing samples. Producers and studio execs literally have to read hundreds of samples scripts from potential writers and then send the best candidates to the showrunner. He/she will then pick the best ones and interview them for a staffing position. Writer’s rooms usually consist of 8 – 16 writers depending on the show so there’s a lot of competition for amongst writers and their representatives.