Making Content Fly Without a Pilot

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Fox cancelled its pilot season, Netflix never even had one, and still countless series are on the chopping block after just four or six episodes. For years, networks and content creators alike have used pilot episodes and seasons to gauge viewer interest and determine which new series to greenlight, but that’s beginning to change. We’ve realized that spending inordinate amounts of money on content that may never see the light of day is akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall. What happens if nothing seems to be sticking?

The industry must move beyond the pilot and fully commit to creating great content from day one. Everyone benefits. To stick with the metaphor, you can’t design an experimental jet via focus group, so it’s time trust a visionary engineer — and be ready to take off without a pilot. So how do we know which direction to fly?

For me, good content comes in the form of passion projects, free-flowing formats that allow natural talent to shine through, and genuine, unscripted content — post-reality. Pass on the chardonnay-throwing and invest in content that moves us emotionally, challenges us intellectually and makes us laugh until it hurts. Allow talented creative minds to do the things they’ve always wanted to try. And take some risks on some new up-and-comers. Let’s tell stories that we are proud to produce.

You may tell me that the pilot is not gone yet. Amazon had a pilot season, right? Not just one, but three or four “pilot” seasons in quick succession. It’s too early to see if its new model, which allows viewers to vote directly for their favorite shows, will be the “new pilot,” but the shift is emblematic of deeper change in the industry at large.

Previously, there was always heavy concern about whether a pilot would reach some arbitrary threshold of viewership and succeed, or fall below some line and fail. But we’ve had to rethink those parameters. Even though it’s now a major cultural phenomenon, no one would have been able to predict Breaking Bad’s finale numbers from its first season viewership. Family Guy was canned and brought back due to overwhelming fan support. Candidly Nicole went from digital to VH1 as a wider audience clamored for more. But if we went by the same metrics that we’ve been using all along, it’s likely none of these shows would’ve had a chance at success.

With digital and traditional TV inextricably intertwined, we don’t — and shouldn’t — rely on pilots. The pilot, as we have known it, is outdated, but that shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, we should see it as an opportunity: Slow-burn shows now have the chance to gain momentum before the axe drops. Short, unscripted, skit-based improv can incubate a full-fledged, multiseason series. And we can have as diverse an approach to a series launch as we do to its format or content. Even without a pilot, video’s future is taking an exciting course, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Nate Hayden is vice president of originals and branded entertainment at AOL.

Fox cancelled its pilot season, Netflix never even had one, and still countless series are on the chopping block after just four or six episodes. For years, networks and content creators alike have used pilot episodes and seasons to gauge viewer interest and determine which new series to greenlight, but that’s beginning to change. We’ve realized that spending inordinate amounts of money on content that may never see the light of day is akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall. What happens if nothing seems to be sticking?

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