When a writer comes up with an amazing idea for a TV show and wants to pitch it to a network, a ‘Show Bible’ is created, which includes the following materials:
• Overview of the show
• Target demographic
• Style of show
• Intended network
• Intended timeslot
• Intended number of episodes per season
• Intended budget per episode
• Series lead character breakdown
• Series regular character breakdown
• Intended cast or character prototypes using existing celebrities
• Full ‘treatment’ for each of the episodes in the first season
• Pilot script for the show
• Marketing plan
• Financial figures from comparative shows in the genre or style
• Full scripts for additional episodes are occasionally added
These items are combined with a few additions that may be specific to the project. The writer’s agent, manager, or producer (or anyone who knows the right people) sets up a ‘pitch session’ with executives from each of the TV networks for which the show may be appropriate. The writer and/or producer attend each meeting, show bible in hand, and pitch their concept.
Each major network only has enough time slots for a certain number of new shows each season, but will finance several times that number of pilots. For example, a network might finance fifteen TV pilots for a given season. Those fifteen pilots are cast, filmed, edited and viewed by network executives and test audiences. Of the fifteen, the network may only select three or four shows to ‘pick up’.
A TV show being picked up means the network agrees to finance additional episodes of the show (usually in blocks of 12 for network TV and 13 for cable), and allocates a time slot for it to be aired. The creator(s) of the concept and the writer(s) who wrote the pilot episode almost always become executive producers or consulting producers of the series. Modifications are made to the show according to the results of test audience screenings and network input. Storylines are changed (if necessary), and some characters may be removed, added, or re-cast.
Unfortunately, pilots that don’t get picked up are rarely ‘saved’ for another season. This is partly because the cast and crew move on to their next projects. With a different cast and crew, the existing pilot episode would no longer be an accurate ‘sample’ of what the show could be like. Sometimes, however, a show will sell a TV series to another network after not picking the show up themselves.
When a TV show airs, the ‘ratings’ (number of viewers) it gets on American TV determine whether it stays on the air. The ratings are called ‘Nielsen Ratings’ (named after Arthur Nielsen). Shows can be taken off the air after as few as one episode, or after many seasons, depending on how the show is rating at the time.
The pilots that are ‘picked up’ are announced in May each year. A week later, the ‘upfronts’ (meetings where many TV commercial timeslots are pre-sold) take place. ABC and NBC each shoot an average of 20–25 pilots and pick up around ten. CBS, FOX, and CW each shoot between ten and twenty, and usually pick up around five.