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MBPT Spotlight: Why Not Let The Viewers Or Media Agencies Pick The Series The Broadcast Networks Order?

The five major English-language networks cumulatively produced 104 scripted pilots for the new 2013-14 broadcast season, the highest total since 2007; from those ordered, 52 series were picked that they now expect to air and promote with varying degrees of hype and hope.

Most won't succeed. Out of the 37 new series that aired during the 2012-13 regular season, only 10 were renewed, and some of those had viewership bordering on cable series numbers. The networks, of course, renewed them, either because they couldn't cancel everything—that would have left too many holes to fill—or because their own studios produced the series, and the networks want to air enough episodes to get them into syndication.

And that's a pretty good indication that the current pilot system is financially out of control, costing the networks billions of wasted dollars on programming that viewers continually reject. At the same time, marketers, who spend hundreds of millions on advertising in these shows, are rewarded with make-goods and find themselves moving their ads into shows they didn't select in the first place.

All of which raises an interesting question. Since the broadcast networks have such a poor track record of selecting new shows to offer viewers each year, maybe it would benefit them to be more inclusive in their selection process.

Since they are spending so much on advertising in these new shows that for the most part fail, shouldn't marketers have some say in the development process? Certainly their media agencies all have sophisticated research capabilities that could possibly contribute myriad insights to the selection process. Perhaps, but for the most part, neither agencies nor clients get to see the scripted series the networks select to put on the schedule until the process is finalized.

So what do agency research executives think about becoming more a part of the series development process, since their clients are spending all this money to support shows that have a low percentage of success under the current system?

"The thought of media agencies playing a role in program development is intriguing," said Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis, at Magna Global. "I agree that the current development process feels unsustainable, particularly from a financial prospective. When you consider that a scripted drama costs between $2 million and $3 million per episode to produce, and two-thirds of new series usually fail, that's an awfully big gap that is getting more difficult to close with ad revenue alone."

And Hughes added that the focus group method networks use to test their pilots is also faulty. "I can't tell you how many times over the last 13 years I've heard network executives say a pilot was their 'highest-testing ever' only to see the show cancelled after a couple of episodes."

Bringing Viewers To the Table

But Hughes thinks the answer for the broadcast networks is not to partner with the agencies in trying to pick the next hit shows, but to tap more into the viewers, and not through focus groups.

"I find the Amazon approach to series development compelling," Hughes said. "By putting their pilots online and getting viewer feedback before ordering anything to series, I think they've given themselves a much better shot to field something that clicks with audiences. Netflix has used the same kind of data-driven approach to decide what to order to series, though they didn't actually make a pilot first. But the idea is to take into account what audiences are actually responding to, in real time, because it does change."

Hughes said the networks might argue that the same thing can be accomplished with focus groups but he adds, "It's simply not the same because it's not testing 'in the wild.'"

Amazon put 14 pilots on in April and let viewers watch them and offer their feedback and suggest which ones should be ordered for online series. In late May, Amazon picked five series based on viewer feedback that it will show on its Amazon Prime Instant Video service, including Alpha House, a political comedy starring John Goodman which will air later this year.

Among the series not picked up following viewer feedback were Zombieland, Dark Minions, Onion News Network, Sara Solves It and Teeny Tiny Dogs.

Granted, the financial model is different since the Amazon shows are not financed by advertising, but the agency execs like it nonetheless.

"I don't see the broadcast networks involving advertisers or their agencies in the pilot selection process unless they can financially benefit from it, maybe with a big program sponsorship or large product integration deal," said Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research at Horizon Media.

Adgate also praised the Amazon Prime system of letting the viewers accept or reject new series based on the pilot episode, but added, "I don't see the networks doing anything like that."

Still, Adgate said the thought of the agencies participating in the network's selection process is "interesting," adding that the only way he could see it happening is "if advertisers threatened to pull ad dollars out of their programming, but I don't see that happening anytime soon either."

Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat, said there have been instances where clients have collaborated with specific networks to develop series, but most of them were not successful.

"I'm not sure agencies participating in the process would change anything," she said. "For the most part, the broadcast networks work with studios and proven directors on projects that have to appeal to a mass audience. They do spend a lot of money on research and testing before they select something to put on the air. I've worked on the network side and they do rigorous pilot testing. But unfortunately there are so many programming choices out there on broadcast and cable and now on other screens that it is increasingly harder to produce a huge hit, no matter how much research they do."