It’s television upfronts this week, the time every year when the broadcast networks announce which lucky shows have earned subsequent seasons, which unfortunates are getting cancelled, and most importantly, which of the many new projects in development will be going forward—and then try to convince advertisers that they should be excited to buy ad spots in these new and returning shows, and to be part of a new, rearranged schedule.
The enthusiasm the network executives will display at their presentations to advertisers, and the amusing site of actors like Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman dressing up as their dueling liberal and libertarian characters from Parks and Recreation to do schedule announcements, is deceptive. Many of the shows that are being presented as the next great thing will prove to be creative or commercial failures: NBC, for example, cancelled almost all of the shiny new shows it offered up to advertisers and to viewers with such great hope last fall, and is starting over with shows like a sitcom from Michael J. Fox and a drama starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Dracula. And the fancy presentations and celebratory air at the upfronts disguises that the process by which the networks select which new shows they’re moving forward with is hugely expensive and exhausting. The networks may put as many as 100 shows into development, going through the process of writing the pilots, casting actors for them, pulling together sets and wardrobes for those actors to work with (or investing in special effects), shooting said pilots, testing them extensively in front of audiences, and then making their choices. It costs an awful lot of money, and leaves a lot of people waiting a long time to learn if they’ll have jobs.
Last week, when I spoke with Kevin Spacey, who stars as villainous Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood in Netflix’s adaptation of the British series House of Cards, one of the reasons he mentioned for wanting to work with Netflix rather than another outlet was the way Netflix approached the development process.
“What was great that they were the only network that said ‘You don’t have to do a pilot,’” he said. “Because David Fincher and I really didn’t want to do a pilot, because when you do a pilot, you’re kind of obligated to spend 45 minutes establishing all of the characters. And we didn’t want to do that. We just wanted to get on with telling a story, and tell a story over a long period of time. And they said ‘We believe in you, we believe in David, we love this series from Britain. How many do you want to do?’ And we were like, ‘Um, two seasons?’ And they were like ‘Okay!’ It was a risk on their part, but they’ve been great partners.”