Pilot Season and the Face of TV
Is the next year of TV a sign of progress, or is it just business as usual?
One of the big things that’s been going on in Hollywood for the past couple months is pilot season; the period of time when studios sign talent and produce TV pilots they hope will be worthy of a full episode order in anticipation of when network executives and advertisers meet to talk money in May. They all decide what shows to cancel, which ones to renew, and what new programs they’ll get behind. This period of time, also known as “upfronts,” are when networks announce their Fall 2018-2019 TV schedules. Now that May is nearly over, we’re getting a clearer picture of what TV will look like (for at least the next year). Overall, the major broadcast networks, ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, and the CW, will have fewer shows in the upcoming TV season than they did last year, continuing a trend of declining volume that started roughly seven years ago. Of course, what really has everyone talking is how the next season of TV will approach a changed society. This most recent pilot season was noteworthy because, even more so than previous years, it will help determine whether or not the TV industry will look as progressive as it pretends to be.
Hollywood has an image problem, and it knows that. The major players in Hollywood have positioned themselves as anti-Trump liberals, but they’ve also been mired in their own sexism and racism controversies for years. So, in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, and a number of powerful speeches from big name actors, how is Hollywood responding to gain the moral high ground it thinks it has? From a cursory glance, it seems this year’s pilot season was one way Hollywood plans to match the level of inclusivity that is now expected from it by audiences. According to Variety, having people of color among the main casts of new pilots is the norm for this year. The buzzwords for this pilot’s season were diversity and parity.
Hollywood agents, managers, and producers are feeling the pressure from social media and from casts and crews who are all pushing for equal pay and equal representation behind and in front of the camera. That’s impacted how casting executives have approached this year’s pilot season. They have to reconsider who they can hire since they’ll have to pay fair shares across the board, and there’s a noted increase in female-led projects, casts led by older actors, and much more diversity on nearly every front.
This can only be good news, but I don’t want to seem overly happy that Hollywood is finally taking equality seriously only because their top guys were caught in scandals. With news of Harvey Weinstein’s arrest and so, so many other new scandals, I can’t act like this is Hollywood just being altruistic. The networks are playing catch up to an audience that changed a while back, and they’re still not there. Honestly, I think the most interesting thing about this pilot season is that there are still going to be roughly a thousand cop shows, alongside a number of TV remakes. Anyway, I’m not trying to undermine this attempt at being decent. I’m glad social media made Hollywood realize there’s an audience for everything…
…or at least, I would be if any of that really meant anything. I’m glad there’s diversity onscreen, but I’d still like to see more diversity of ideas. That doesn’t seem like it will happen yet; there wasn’t much development in terms of diversity in the writers’ rooms of TV. Beyond that, there is still a great amount of pushback against having people of color lead mainstream shows that are meant to appeal to everybody. Those two problems obviously go hand-in-hand and point to TV’s larger problem of being outpaced by social change.
Hollywood’s answer to progress seems to be, first and foremost, regression. As I noted earlier, there are an unseemly amount of reboots, remakes, and continuations of long-dead TV shows. From Charmed to Murphy Brown, and from Magnum, P.I. to Last Man Standing, networks seem fully invested in continuing the trend of reviving TV properties from every era. These shows follow the successes of Hawaii Five-O, Will & Grace, Twin Peaks, and the runaway hit Roseanne. From what I can tell, there wasn’t an overwhelming demand for any of these shows, but TV executives decided that they’re the shows the people want to see. Some of those programs will bring back the same casts, and some will have updated casts for updated audiences. The Charmed reboot, for instance, has a cast of Latina women as the leads.
Considering that, just this morning, on May 29th, ABC cancelled Roseanne because of the controversial stars racist tweet toward an Obama aide, there is clearly still a need for TV producers to grow. To be fair, the show was definitely not cancelled because of low ratings. For whatever reason, despite a history of controversy, Roseanne Barr’s latest tweets are what got her show cancelled. So, is this cancellation progress or just more damage control? (The latter.) Broadcast TV executives are, plain and simple, not in tune with the zeitgeist. Instead, they’re going back to what they think are safer times. I can’t pretend that TV is being progressive when they are literally being regressive and staking their success on the outdated.
Of course, I don’t want to indict all of TV. Some networks are making strides to normalize inclusion and representation across the board. Most of those networks are, tellingly, aimed primarily at Millennials, but even more mass appeal networks are trying to do their part. Of the major broadcast networks, the CW is betting big on the Latina-led Charmed reboot, while CBS has a Latino-led reboot of Magnum, P.I. Those are still reboots, not originally created with the current culture in mind, but they are being made, alongside a slew of other new shows with POCs as leads. CBS in particular is using the next wave of pilots to address criticism it received last year for falling short in terms of diversity. Again though, this isn’t a sign that Hollywood is “woke.” As IndieWire notes:
Latino and Asian-American audiences are still under-represented in primetime, and this is no time to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Diversity and representation in primetime continues to fluctuate. Network execs like to point out they schedule the best pilots they have, which is why they sometimes fall short with inclusiveness — but that means it starts at the development stage.
Maybe I’m just too cynical or jaded, but I don’t see the 2018-2019 TV season as us crossing the finish line and finally bringing Hollywood to where it needs to be. Black is in fashion, and women are what’s working. Hollywood’s not being progressive; it’s being reactive and going into damage control so that it won’t keep losing viewers to streaming services. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. TV production is a business, after all. I understand approaching change with trepidation and only moving forward when it makes sense moneywise. Hollywood’s issue is that so much of its outward reputation, specifically in recent times, is built around the idea that it champions the rights of the disenfranchised liberal. The TV studios have to answer for that reputation now, and hopefully going forward indefinitely. For what it’s worth, TV is still leagues ahead of mainstream film when it comes to progress, diversity, and parity, especially in regards to more specific groups like the LGBTQ community.
To be honest, I don’t watch much broadcast TV anymore, and I have accepted that most of those shows just weren’t for me. I’m not strictly speaking about the racial diversity or lack thereof either. I don’t particularly love procedurals or overly broad comedies, so I generally stick to more niche programming. Because of that, I really can’t gauge whether or not these few steps forward will work for the intended audiences or not. I hope they do. If these broadcast networks are as tuned in to middle America’s consciousness as they think they are, the next era of TV could signal an actual step toward progress.