The children left behind

Now that we know what is on the networks’ schedules for the fall after the upfronts, there’s an interesting article by Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle about what pilots we’ve heard buzzed about that didn’t make the cut: Sometimes buzz about TV pilots is just a lot of hot air.

Remember David E. Kelley’s remake of Life on Mars? Bryan Singer’s take on Football Wives? The TV version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith? M.O.N.Y. from Barry Levinson, Spike Lee and Tom Fontana? Rescue Me‘s Peter Tolan and Denis Leary and their new NYPD-focused show? “CBS, which has done well lately developing sitcoms, passed on comedy pilots starring, among others, Marisa Tomei, Jay Mohr, Chris Klein, Freddie Prinze Jr., Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Biggs.”

Some of the pilots Goodman references might not be completely dead — there’s always midseason — but big names in front of and behind the cameras don’t always help bring their babies to life, either.

So why are so many guesses about what will make it to the schedule wrong? A lot of reasons. Sometimes a show is deemed “hot” because it has a great cast or is developed by, say, Spike Lee. Once a network sees the actual show, it may not be so enthused. Or, in the fickle nature of the business (as exemplified by NBC passing on “M.O.N.Y.” and “Fort Pit”), the direction of the network shifts (less gritty, more sci-fi centric). Some of the “buzz” in the business is faux — meaning it gets generated by agents and studios eager to see their actors and series get picked up, when, in reality, the networks were never that into either one.

An earlier New York Times profile of Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson, who’s struggled to match his earlier success, also made the point that name and reputation aren’t guarantees in TV.

On May 30, as a result of a corporate pas de deux, “Hidden Palms” will make its debut on CW, the new network formed last year from the remnants of WB and UPN, which ultimately bought the script. Despite the circuitous route that the show took to reach the airwaves, it has survived mostly intact, and so too has Mr. Williamson, a onetime wunderkind, now 42, who has spent the last decade learning that no amount of previous success is enough to guarantee a creator carte blanche.

“I don’t think anyone really has that in television, no matter how much they think they do,” he said in a recent interview at his Sunset Boulevard office. “Even if you have it on paper, you’ve still got to put on your boxing gloves.”

It’s always intriguing to think of the what ifs. If pedigree doesn’t ensure success, and neither does a good pilot (hello Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60), and neither does audience testing, what is the best indicator? Goodman’s article suggests the networks need the numbers of audience testing, even if they mean nothing, to back up their decisions:

Since jobs are on the line here (if a network president launches a terrible fall schedule, he or she cuts their expected occupancy length in the job by roughly half), few executives are willing to trust their gut and instead get swayed by audience testing, one of the least reliable tools you can imagine.

All those potential hits killed, all those misses on the air each season. Programming will never be an exact science, but it sure makes me wish the audience could at least have access to the dead pilots to see if our guts agreed with the network choices. Plus, I just really want to see if Winters was really the House people plagiarising themselves as much as it sounded.

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