Pilot Season 2023: Volume Takes Another Dive Amid Solid Broadcast Debuts & Looming Writers Strike
It’s pilot season, right? In the old world order, by mid-February, the broadcast networks would have whittled hundreds of pitches and dozens of scripts down to between 10 and 20 comedy and drama pilots each for the Big 4 and about half dozen for the CW.
Pilot Season 2023 is hitting another historic low with 13 pilot orders across ABC, CBS and NBC and none at Fox, which is going script-to-series, or the CW, which is eyeing up co-productions and modestly budgeted scripted originals as well as a bigger unscripted slate under its new owners.
“It’s just so light,” one industry observer exclaimed about this year’s volume, which could go up but only slightly.
As to why the numbers are so low, “it feels like network executives weren’t given a lot of money to spend, and whatever they have on the air is kind of working, so there isn’t much real estate,” an industry source said.
Indeed, declining linear ratings have put pressure on broadcast budgets. Across-the-board viewership erosion notwithstanding, established series have been chugging along, and the new broadcast additions this season have mostly worked, including CBS’ Fire Country and So Help Me Todd, and NBC’s Quantum Leap and Night Court, which already have been renewed for a second season, ABC’s The Rookie: Feds and Fox’s Accused.
Comedy’s retreat, which started a couple of years ago with fewer comedy blocks on the broadcast schedule, continues with only five comedy pilots total ordered, which is somewhat surprising given last season’s success of new single-camera half-hours Abbott Elementary and Ghosts and this season’s solid start for multi-cams Night Court and Lopez vs. Lopez. Procedurals once again rule most of the drama orders.
Even before the pandemic drove a bus through the way things were done, the number of pilots ordered during the traditional January-May window had been trending down from the high of 100+ a decade ago. The 2020 pilot season pickups, made on the eve of the pandemic, had set a new low volume mark with a little over 60 pilots across the five broadcast networks after ABC and Fox had announced a shift to year-round development and pilot production.
When pilot season returned in 2022, just over 30 pilots were ordered, roughly half of the pilots commissioned in 2020. This year, the number went down another 50%. Meanwhile, the number of pilots greenlighted outside of the regular pilot cycle and broadcast projects that go through a writers room for straight-to-series consideration has been on the rise.
This year, both CBS and NBC ordered two drama pilots each as well as two writers rooms for hourlong projects they would go straight-to-series on in success.
There’s a variety of names used for the new system: off-cycle, two-track, and year-round development are essentially interchangeable terms for how the broadcast networks are looking to fill their fall, and increasingly, midseason schedules.
There are obvious pros and cons. Under the old system, network chiefs knew exactly when contracts expired and when shows needed to be picked up by. “Now, it’s so messy to keep track of,” one broadcast network chief told Deadline. “Back in the day, we were definitely settling on people… having more time to cast properly is a real positive.”
With a fraction of the customary pilot volume yielding so many promising new series this season, one could see why the networks would want to continue to push down the number of pilots in the traditional cycle. A looming writers strike is further complicating things.
If there is a work stoppage in May, when pilots are being picked up to series, these shows may not be ready for fall, which could also explain the networks’ hesitance to do many pilots now for fall consideration. Meanwhile, renewing existing series early would allow them to start working on scripts for next season so they can deliver fresh episodes for fall even if there is a strike. (Writers rooms for potential new series also would bank scripts that can be used if the network picks up the show, strike or no strike.)
In addition to freshmen Night Court, Quantum Leap, Fire Country and So Help Me Todd, already renewed for next season are ABC and CBS’ sophomore comedy hits Abbott Elementary and Ghosts, respectively, Fox’s The Cleaning Lady (plus the network’s animated stalwarts), as well as NBC’s La Brea for a third and final season, which is envisioned as strike contingency. More early renewals are expected in the coming weeks.
Additionally, several new drama and comedy series that could’ve premiered this midseason, including CBS’ The Never Game and NBC’s Found, are being held for fall.