Welcome. You’re invited to have a virtual drink with the thoughtful and thought-provoking NBC drama development exec Joey Chavez.
This week, all the broadcast (non-cable) networks – ABC, CBS, the CW, FOX, and NBC – announce their 2012-2013 line-ups to Madison Avenue. For those unfamiliar with the upfronts ritual, TV executives, lucky showrunners, TV stars, and TV agents descend on New York. The networks create star-studded presentations to convince ad buyers to purchase commercial time during their network’s primetime shows. Network presidents roll promos for their new shows and talk up their nets’ demographic ratings. Then there are the parties. It’s a total schmooze-fest.
Joey and I talked about the TV industry’s development process, from idea to series. “We all work in the business of failure,” Joey said. “Last pilot pitching season, we heard between 300 and 400 pitches at NBC. Of those pitches, we bought 60-70 projects. Of those 60-70 projects, 10 got put-to-pilot. Of those 10 pilots, five to six are contenders to get on the schedule. Of those five to six pilots, maybe one is a breakout hit.”
Joey’s description rings true for all of the broadcast networks. Hit shows come and go, the ratings horserace shifts over time, so every network works in the business of failure. It’s damned difficult to create a sure-fire hit. In fact, as you can see from the graphic below, there’s no way to predict a hit.
Networks take risks when creating shows. Multiple variables work for and against each project. Each show requires alchemy to make it a success. And only the audience can truly make a show a hit. Without an audience, a brilliant show with the perfect writing, directing, casting, marketing, and programming will die.
For show creators, producers, directors, executives, and actors who are focused on the short-term, it sounds glass half-empty – maybe even completely empty. However, if you’re focused on the long haul, you’ll find that development can be a positive experience even in the “business of failure.”
“You go in cycles of trying to make your dream come true,” Joey said. “There are times when things are really working in your favor. And even when they are, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.” This looking-over-your-shoulder instinct can become ingrained, even among highly talented, highly successful players.
To illustrate his point, Joey recounted a story about a project once poised for success. “The project was a really powerful 40-minute hybrid between a comedy and drama,” he said. “It had everything going for it. It had been set up at a network. It was well-written. It worked in tandem with an A-list actor, who had just come off an award-winning, critically acclaimed series.”
Then one of the A-lister’s former co-stars had accepted the lead in another series and won an Emmy for the new role. Unsettled by his former co-star’s win, the A-list actor killed his own new project before the pilot was shot. The bar had been set. The A-lister feared his next show might not measure up to his former co-star’s current success.
“When the writer told us that story, my immediate reaction was sympathy,” Joey said. “It’s so unfortunate that people in our business work tirelessly for years to finally get a gig that shows everything you can do, who you are, what you’re capable of doing. But even in the face of success, many never lose that fear of failure.
“You can use fear in positive ways. It can motivate you. But it can also stop people before they’re ready to continue to succeed. People self-sabotage,” Joey said.
This A-lister may have self-sabotaged his next project, but fear of failure can be paralyzing at any stage in a person’s career. In our business, you have to put yourself out there. As a writer, director, or actor, you’re rejected far more often than not. You have to learn to keep putting yourself out there until you get hear “yes.” Sometimes it only takes one “yes.” Usually, however, it takes a series of “yeses” to build a successful career.
Think about it this way: During this development season, all of the writers who sold a pilot got a “yes.” Then the folks who had their script greenlit to pilot got another “yes.” And those very lucky creators who were greenlit to series got yet another “yes!”
Each “yes” along the way helps the writer build relationships with studio and network executives. These relationships help you show the small audience inside of Hollywood what you’re capable of doing. Studio and network executives will be your first fans. They become invested in writers, creators, producers, directors, actors, and their projects. If you prove yourself to Hollywood eyeballs, you might get the chance to show America and world your work.
“To think about that amorphous number that we started with – of just ideas out there that people are passionate about, that they think ‘this could be a hit,’ whittle that down to the 300, to the 70, to the 10, to the 5, to maybe one, it’s daunting. It’s exciting. It’s just like the lottery. People buy lottery tickets for the $600 million win because it’s hope. That’s the positive side of it. The playing and the attempt are the hopeful part. And that’s the part I love about development. Yes, there are disappointments. There are the scripts that got away. There are the ones only you and the writer were really passionate about. And the script that you and a writer work on this year might be the one that leads you to the next project that is gonna be the hit.”
As a writer who has had the privilege of setting up a few pilots, I know how much energy and emotion go into creating a show. You wake up in the middle of the night worried about your characters, script, story, packaging, positioning, current and future network programming, demographics, and current social climate. You worry about all the reasons your show could get a “no.”
What most creators may not realize is your executives have a lot of the same worries. You likely won’t know what battles they’ve waged on your behalf behind closed doors. They’re invested in you and your show. They want your show to succeed. They want your show to find an audience.
While there are no guaranteed recipes for success, there are some sage rules of thumb. The late, great television genius and former NBC president Brandon Tartikoff shepherded such amazing hits as “Hill Street Blues,” “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “St. Elsewhere,” “The Golden Girls,” and “Miami Vice,” among many others. In 1997, shortly before his death, he offered “a bit of well-intentioned advice and encouragement” to television programmers.
“Restore an element of trust and respect to those who have earned it and whose passion inspires you,” Mr. Tartikoff wrote. “The most successful network will always be the one with the best collective creative vision.”
I’d say that’s the hope – that your passion will be respected, that you’ll find partners who champion you and your show. Together, you’ll work to launch a show that connects with viewers.
What shows are you looking forward to this coming season? Please click on “Leave a comment” and give us your take.