Pilot Panic: Why Buyers Were Flying Blind in the Upfront

Screener Delays Force Agencies to Make Sight-Unseen Investments

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Buyers representing the world's biggest marketers came to upfront negotiations this summer to secure time in high-performance vehicles like "Empire," "Sunday Night Football," "Scandal," "The Big Bang Theory" ... and while they were at it, how about some of that new stuff they saw during the May upfront presentations?

Even though buying time in new series is a sucker's game -- the failure rate is north of 80% -- the networks usually try to compensate by making their wares as accessible as possible. Generally speaking, pilots for new shows are made available for the buyers' close inspection by early June. But a series of reshoots, casting shuffles and rushed concepts led to an unprecedented dearth of available screening material, leaving buyers to invest in several new shows sight-unseen.

Just weeks before the new fall season was set to kick off on Sept. 21, buyers and advertisers had yet to see a number of high-profile pilots. For example, ABC began pitching its "Muppets" reboot before the pilot was even shot, forcing buyers to make do with the 10-minute demo reel the network screened at its May 12 upfront presentation.

The pilot for ABC's lurid neo-noir "Wicked City" was late in coming, as were Fox's two-hour "Scream Queens" opener and its "Minority Report" adaptation.

NBC's long-simmering "Heroes Reborn" didn't coalesce until mid-September. And for much of the summer, the only glimpse into the CW's hour-long musical comedy "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" came courtesy of the original half-hour pilot that was passed-over by Showtime.

Leaving buyers in the dark hurt networks' ability to sell the shows, an unwelcome little undertow during an upfront market that saw dollar volume falling 3.7% below last year's total.

If investing in a new series before watching a single episode seems akin to buying a car based on a glimpse at a print ad, some buyers say that this year's cookie-cutter lineup takes a lot of the guesswork out of the process. "You're telling me you need to see the 'Code Black' pilot before you buy it?" exclaimed one buyer. "Ever seen a hospital drama? Well, there you go."

Maybe so, but those who saw the "Code Black" pilot suggested a look would have given CBS a little leverage at the bargaining table. "I previewed that for some friends and each and every last one of them said, 'Wow, that was intense!'" said Spark chief investment officer John Muszynski. "And it is intense. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's on my DVR list."

"For most clients, our hope is that we have a greater share of returning shows in our mix vs. new shows, given the high percentage of failures," Mr. Muszynski said. "We try to minimize the number of new shows to begin. But when we do buy into new shows, if the pilots are not available, that tends to indicate that these are shows the networks aren't overly happy with. So we'll probably steer clear."

Buyers can interpret delays in different ways. In cases where a pilot is unavailable because the series was ordered late or the network has recast key roles or demanded significant reshoots, they may not read too much into it. Otherwise, however, a no-show is generally bad news. "When something's really good they'll move heaven and earth to get that screener to you," said one TV buyer. "If they're excited about a show, they'll get their act together."

While there is an inherent brand affinity at work that makes a "Muppets" buy less of an unknown, many buyers who finally screened the first episode mere days before the premiere said they were a bit taken aback by the adult humor on display.

"Paul Lee said it wasn't going to be your grandfather's 'Muppets,'" one national TV buyer said, referring to the ABC entertainment president, "but I really didn't see the sex jokes coming. Rizzo the rat really wanted to have sex with that lady rat in Fozzie's podium." Rizzo isn't the only Muppet on the make; in a subsequent episode, Miss Piggy arrives late to the set (wink, wink) following what we're led to believe was a night of porcine passion with singer Josh Groban.

a misleading barometer

Even without having had the benefit of screening the "Muppets" pilot ahead of time, Mr. Muszynski said he was banking on stories to appeal to viewers who grew up on the original "Muppet Show" as well as their progeny. "I was counting on a show that's written on multiple levels and not something that only appeals to just one segment," he said, adding that the iconic status of the "Muppets" took a lot of guesswork out of his decision to place clients in the show.

It's true that the very nature of pilots can make for a misleading barometer anyway. So some buyers turn to alternatives.

"It's no secret that nobody's figured out which pilots will work," said Mike Law, senior VP-video activation at Amplifi, the media investment arm of the Dentsu Aegis Network. "Rather than live and die on the merits of the pilot, we put a lot of stock in our research guys. They take a closer look at past performance in a given time period, as well as the track records of producers and showrunners. The more data we have at our disposal, the better we can predict how viewers will react."

It's generally safer to steer clients to established properties rather than gamble on the unknown, Mr. Law acknowledged. "We do try to heavy up on the proven shows as best we can, and then try to hedge on the newer shows," he said. "The real work begins after the first week, when we start to see how the shows are performing and can adjust accordingly."

Novelty goes out the window altogether when a client must have the ear of a mass audience. "When we have something important we need to launch, we're going to invest in the things that are proven," said one New York-based buyer. "Sports, 'The Walking Dead,' 'Empire,' anything that guarantees reach. We'll pay for that opportunity rather than futz around on four, five, six new shows that may not even still be on the air by the time the activation begins."

All that said, scarfing up time in TV's rare hits is a pricey proposition. A buyer who knows there is a mid-priced sitcom that overindexes on viewers who demonstrate a predilection for corn chips can make a more effective investment than the buyer who plunks down $600,000 for a spot in an NFL game and waits for the registers to ring.

Interestingly enough, many of the pilots that buyers are most enthusiastic about were still in production during the upfront bazaar. Of the agency execs surveyed, the one upcoming project that seemed to generate the most anticipation was Fox's resurrection of "The X Files." Principal photography on the first episode began in June, just as the dealmaking began in earnest.

Pilot or no pilot, buyers for the most part remain wary of this year's freshman crop. When asked which shows had been lined up in the DVR queue, one buyer quipped that to play favorites, it would first be necessary to distinguish between "a whole lot of cookie-cutter, same old, same old shit."

Others were perhaps a tiny bit more generous … or at the very least, optimistic. Mr. Law said he thinks NBC's "Blindspot" has legs, adding that he's also pulling for CBS's "Code Black" and "Life in Pieces." He also said he hoped "Scream Queens" would help Fox rebound on Tuesday nights. (Mr. Law revealed his favorites a week before the series had their broadcast premieres.)

For his part, Mr. Muszynski said that ABC's "Quantico" is joining "Code Black" on his must-see list. "There's another argument for seeing the pilots ahead of time: I'd never have put 'Quantico' on my schedule based on the cut-down," he said. "But as soon as I saw it I thought, 'OK….'"

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