But the Pilot Was Funny…

Sometimes it's easier to project the performance of a new series without seeing the pilot. It's easy to be fooled into thinking a strong pilot will translate into a strong series. While it's true that, occasionally, a series will be better than the pilot (as was the case with Friends and Ally McBeal), more often it's the other way around. A pilot is just a sales tool to sell the series.

Here are some tips to remember during the networks' upfront week:

  1. A comedy should be funny because of the characters, not the plot.
    In the 20, I've been evaluating programming, the two funniest pilots I've seen were NBC's The Golden Girlsand CBS's The Famous Teddy Z.
    For those of you who don't remember the latter, it was about a guy who worked in the mailroom of a major talent agency. Through a hilarious string of events, he becomes the top talent agent in the company. People at the screening were literally falling out of their seats laughing. By the second show, though, the events that made the pilot so funny no longer existed.
    As for The Golden Girls, I don't even remember what happened in the pilot (I think they were sitting around a table talking for most of it). It was funny because the characters were funny. They had strong chemistry, and people tuned in week after week to see them.
    It's difficult to write 22 strong storylines in a season. People tune in for the characters; the plots are incidental.
    Before this season began, for example, we said the heavily hyped Couplingwould work only if the characters gelled and people liked them (they didn't).
  2. What will a drama's third episode look like?
    It's easy to write one compelling courtroom, medical, or cop episode (well, not for me, but for good dramatic writers). But what will subsequent episodes be like? In other words, is it a good one-time movie, or will it make a good series?
  3. Shows make stars; stars don't make shows.
    What was the last show with a major star in the lead role to succeed? Give up? The list of failed series featuring stars is too lengthy to list here. In most cases, it's the show that makes the star, particularly for younger-skewing series.
    Familiarity breeds expectations. Viewers generally have high expectations of those who were once in successful series, particularly recent ones. More often than not, those expectations are not met.
  4. Most shows look better in a conference room than in your living room.
    We can't recall all the times a network claimed a show was one of its highest-testing pilots ever (because few made it beyond their first seasons). Schedules matter: You may really like a new comedy or drama, but, if it's up against CSIor Law & Order, you may not actually watch it.
  5. Most hits are accidental.
    It's easier to predict a miss than a hit. Virtually nobody expected Friends, ER, CSI, or American Idolto be a blockbuster. And anyone who says they did is lying.
  1. Sternberg is executive vice president for audience analysis at Magna Global USA.