Why Do So Many “Greenlit” TV Shows Never Appear on TV?

Charlie Jane Anders shines her illuminating prose on this seemingly paradoxical state of affairs:

Terrific illo by Tara Jacoby

by Charlie Jane Anders

Right now, it’s pilot season — which means you’re going to be hearing about a lot of TV shows getting ordered. And then, nine months from now… most of those shows will not be on television. What is this mysterious crucible? Here’s our step-by-step guide to the process of pitching a brand new television show.

Right about now, we ought to be in the middle of watching the first season of Hieroglyph, a show about gods in ancient Egypt that was “ordered to series” by Fox. But Fox pulled the plug on Hieroglyph, even after ordering a full season in advance, and we never even got to see it. That’s just one extreme example of a more common phenomenon — to casual observers, it looks like things are getting ordered all the time, then never showing up.

So as the image above indicates, the process of getting a TV show through the studios and networks, and actually getting it on television, is much like what that piece of legislation goes through in the classic Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just A Bill.” Except with more filibustering, and constitutional crises, and vetos, and probably more government shutdowns. [Full disclosure: A TV show based on my story “Six Months, Three Days” is in development.]

To find out more about the many stages of the TV development process, we talked to some seasoned TV professionals — some of whom are quoted below, and some of whom asked to remain nameless. So here’s a painstaking guide to the various stages of the TV development process, and all the jargon you’re likely to hear. (This is slightly more geared towards the broadcast networks, because the cable channels have a less rigid annual schedule.)

So here goes:

1. The Pitchening

This begins in June or July, for the broadcast networks. In a nutshell, you pitch a studio, and once you have studio backing, then you go to the network. Often, you’ll pitch a producer first, and the producer will have a deal with a particular studio that he or she will bring the project to. On occasion, a producer can go straight to the network, skipping the studio — but networks like to know that a studio is backing a show, because that makes it more likely they’ll actually get the show they ordered.

This process, from producer to studio to network, can take weeks — or it can go incredibly fast, if you have J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg on board as a producer, or if your show is based on a well-known comic book or beloved property.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of The Middleman and writer for Helix, explains:

It helps if you think of the studio as a bank. What they do, in the broadest and most essential sense, if advance a showrunner/show creator the money and resources to actually make the show in advance of the network paying their fees (networks basically “rent” shows for a premiere showing and a number of repeats. They also get a creative oversight because the fees they pay cover most of the show’s cost. That much said, if the show costs more to make than what the network pays — which is most of the time — then the studio has to deficit finance those costs, so their interest is to make sure the show stays around long enough to be sold into syndication, which is where they bounce back from the deficit.

Sometimes a studio has corporate affiliation with a network (like Warner Bros. and The CW) which means they might try to place shows with that network. (Although Warner Bros. also makes Person of Interest, which is on CBS right now.) Sometimes a studio will give the “right of first refusal” to an affiliated network, before pitching elsewhere.

Also, sometimes a producer will have an exclusive deal with a particular studio, called an “overall deal,” which means you only pitch to that studio or get assigned to work on that studio’s projects.

With cable TV networks and things like Netflix, the process is much less standardized — some of them have a schedule that’s similar to broadcast, while HBO is famous for taking years and years to develop a single show.

2. The Notening

Everybody will have notes on your pitch. The studio will have stuff they want to see changed, and then the network will have its own concerns. Sometimes they disagree.

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