At the start of “Pulp Fiction,” as Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) engage in an extended dialogue about “le Big Macs” and foot massages en route to their early morning hit job, Jules perfectly summarizes the television development process:
“Well, the way they make shows is, they make one show. That show’s called a pilot. Then they show that show to the people who make shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they’re going to make more shows. Some pilots get picked and become television programs. Some don’t, become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.”
The “she” in question is Mrs. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), wife of the pair’s boss, who participated in the failed pilot “Fox Force Five.” Assuredly, the pilot sounded terrible, but what if it wasn’t? What if it was absolute dynamite, the seed of an Emmy dynasty? Does anyone really know besides the creative staff, a few executives and a handful of test audiences?
The answer was “no” in 1994 and 17 years later, it’s still a resounding “no.” A group of suits still decides which pilots are picked up based on God-knows-what (possible explanations: personal preferences, extrapolation of test data, CEO shtupping the lead actress). The media landscape has evolved astonishingly in the last two decades, but the simple process of choosing which pilots get picked up has not. And that’s bad for everybody.
Here’s my proposal: Post the pilots online — be it Hulu, YouTube or the networks’ own websites — and let the public sample the fare, allowing viewers the powers of rating and commenting. Networks can gauge the popular reaction to their shows, identifying the surefire successes, the dead-on-arrival disasters and the ones nobody gives two shits about. By dodging potential turkeys, networks would avoid the costs of picking the stinkers up to series, buying titanic Times Square billboards to market them and using up prime real estate on their schedules.
Take the case of “Lone Star,” the FOX show all the critics were drooling over last fall. Despite the rabid acclaim and a plum post-“House” timeslot on Monday nights, it premiered to a paltry 4.1 million viewers. After dropping to an audience of just 3.2 million for its second episode, the show was promptly canceled, leaving who-knows-how-much in sunk marketing and production costs alongside the opportunity cost of picking up “Lone Star” over all the other pilots that could have been successful in its place. If the pilot had been placed online in advance, maybe FOX would have noticed that nobody gives two shits about a network show about a con man living two separate lives.
But wait! There’s more — this game plan would also generate free publicity for the networks, getting viewers jazzed for future episodes and spreading the word to their social networks months in advance. Add to that the feeling of attachment and satisfaction from seeing a show you championed making it as a series, shepherding a pilot out of the Valley of Darkness and into the fall schedule.
Speculations as to why networks would be resistant to this idea are sparse. The main possibility is that networks want to preserve the element of surprise, ensuring that viewers turn up in big numbers during premiere weeks to please the advertisers. But as an executive or an ad man, I’d rather leave viewers unsurprised for the first episode than wake up the next morning and learn my series just tanked in the ratings. If movies are 100-meter dashes, then TV shows are marathons, and it’s more important to have gas in the tank throughout than blow it all on a quick start. (Anyone remember “FlashForward”? Anyone?)
Thefutoncritic.com has a list of all the pilots that failed to get picked up this season, including the FOX comic book adaptation “Locke & Key” (which screened at Comic-Con to rave reviews), NBC’s magical-crime-fighting “17th Precinct” (to fill that “Harry Potter” hole in our hearts), FOX’s Ethan Hawke-starring action thriller “Exit Strategy” (to fill that “24” hole in our hearts) and NBC’s “Wonder Woman.” There is a “Wonder Woman” pilot, produced by David E. Kelley (“Boston Legal”) and starring Adrianne Palicki (“Friday Night Lights”), and the public doesn’t have access to it — a crime against humanity if I’ve ever seen one.
The point is, hundreds of creative minds were hard at work producing all those pilots and the fruits of their labor will never see the light of day. So networks, please put your pilots online. If anything, do it for the directors, actors, writers, set-constructors and key grips. And do it for Mia Wallace, who wouldn’t have ended up as the wife of a gangster and a cocaine addict had “Fox Force Five” been picked up. OK, she probably would have. Now excuse me while I assemble my team to perform a bit of the old Inception on some television executives.