Whenever I speak to a group of actors about TV casting (and especially in my small group seminars), I do a little show and tell about how to determine (with decent accuracy) which of the over 100 pilots ordered each year will make it more than a few episodes. After my recent talk at SAG, I got quite a bit of mail thanking me for sharing the formula that I use for doing this. Now, I don’t like to call it a “formula,” simply because that connotes a good deal of statistical certainty which we all know is not native to the Hollywood landscape. That said, I’ve decided to share the nitty-gritty of whatever “system” I’ve devised. The timing is perfect for this, as just last week, I sent a notice out to the Hollywood Happy Hour mailing list (and Judy Kerr passed it along to the members of her mailing list) about the updated grids of pilot orders for the 2006-2007 television season, which were released on April 12th in The Hollywood Reporter.
First, I recommend that you read Andrew Wallenstein’s article linked here. He covers the basics: issues of scheduling these new series within the existing program grid for each network, the end of WB and UPN (and beginning of CW), trends in ratings by demographic makeup, and which long-running shows are coming to a close. What I then would like to introduce to you is the system that I’ve been using over the past few years to help me advise actors on how to predict which pilots have the best chance of being picked up and surviving for more than a few episodes.
Why Series Success Matters
The reason the success of a series is important to actors is because you’re not going to do a mass mailing of your materials to every new show, hoping the spaghetti-thrown-against-the-wall approach to self-marketing will pay off. Of course, you should always target the shows on which you have the best chance of getting seen (type-wise). That’s a no-brainer. But because doing sufficient research about that issue (which shows use your type) when the shows are “too new” to track takes time, the likelihood a show will stay on the air longer than Emily’s Reasons Why Not did becomes very important. If a show that’s high on your “to target” list is pulled before you’ve finished your research, that’s time you’ve wasted. Best to first research which shows will be given a fighting chance and then focus on which of those shows will be high on your type-target list.
The upfronts are the annual presentation of series roll-outs for media buyers in New York each May. Programming execs present the networks’ lineups to advertisers who then begin spending billions of dollars on that next season’s shows. Business-minded actors who keep up with which shows “sell best” to advertisers have an early idea of which shows will stay on the air longest. This is a pretty logical train of thought: If advertisers are spending big bucks up front on a show, the networks will keep it on the air a little longer than other shows with similar ratings for which ad dollars have not been received. It’s not costing the networks money to give a borderline show a little time to ripen on the vine, if its up front ad sales have been good.
This year’s upfronts begin on May 15th with NBC’s lineup, continuing May 16th with ABC’s presentation, followed by CBS’s pitches on May 17th, and closing on May 18th with the roll-outs by Fox and the new CW. You can keep up with news of ad sales at the upfronts by setting up a Google News Alert for the word upfronts or by regularly visiting sites like AdJab, MediaDailyNews, Access Intelligence’s Cable Group, iMedia Connection, New York Times, Zap2it, TV Squad, Laurel’s TV Picks, Cynopsis, TeeVee, and my personal favorite The Futon Critic.
Ownership and Track Record
This is the less-linear way of predicting a show’s likely amount of airtime. It is also my favorite. And it works. We’re going to create a “point system” that will represent a predictor of which shows will do well. In the version I do, the points are weighted based on years of my research and data. For the purposes of this explanation, we’re just going to count points evenly and let the shows with the most points at the end of this exercise “win.” Believe me, it’ll still get you “close enough” and it’ll be much less geeky than the sort of statistical analysis I do for fun.
Returning to The Hollywood Reporter‘s pilot order grids for ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, and NBC, let’s take a look at who owns what for a simple “likelihood of airtime” factor that we can add to what we learn during upfronts. Note: If you go ahead and do this homework before the upfronts, you’ll have a quick list of top shows to target based on points. Then, when you add the sales data from the upfronts to your list, you should have very clear “winners” to target, in terms of locating (and getting in front of) the shows’ casting directors.
In each network’s pilot order grid, the second column is the studio producing the show. The first, easiest thing to determine is whether the studio producing each show and network on which each show will air are owned by the same parent company. If the answer is YES, you’re looking at a show that will be given a little extra time to find an audience simply because the parent company is making money either way. While there are many complexities to the ownership structure of each entity, a basic understanding of the players will do, for our purposes here. That means you need to know that the network ABC = Disney and the studio/production company Touchstone = Disney. So, for any ABC pilot produced by Touchstone, that’s a point. Any CBS pilot produced by CBS Paramount, that’s a point too. On CW, you’re going to look for CBS Paramount and/or Warner Bros. TV. A caution about CW, though: Since it’s a new network, I have no idea whether the “rules” will apply. No one does. Yet. Okay, so for Fox shows, you’re looking for 20th Century Fox as the production company/studio. And for NBC, that’d be NBC Universal. Yes, it’s very nice that they’ve gone and made it a lot easier in recent years to determine who owns what by making the names much more transparent. Phew!
Okay, so now for the part of the “system” that gives shows a second “point.” That’s going to be whether the principals in the team column of these pilot order grids are owners of one of the studios/production companies producing the show. This is where you’re looking for things like Brian Grazer in the team column and Imagine TV in the studio column. Ridley Scott and Scott Free Productions. Stuff like that. Since it’s not just “daddy’s name on the door” that we’re talking about here, but the principals of the company are directly involved in these particular shows, they’re going to throw more money at a floundering show than folks who exec produce but don’t sign the checks at the production company (they have to ask nicely first).
Criteria for a third point: Does the production team include the star? This becomes important because someone like Patricia Heaton, for example, could elect to take a hit on her “star salary” for a show on which she’s making money as the exec producer in order to help it stay in production a bit longer, should it come down to such a moment of truth. So, with highlighter in hand, any place you see a name in the synopsis column that corresponds to a name in the team column, that’s another point.
Fourth point comes from the reputation built by exec producers and show runners. This is where your (two-week trial or full) membership at IMDb-Pro pays off (and really, if you’re doing this kind of research, it’s beyond “worth it” to pay the $8.33/mo. for full membership). Doing a little research on the folks in the team column of these pilot order grids will yield information on the staying power of the last series Ken Olin exec produced or Phil Rosenthal‘s industry cred. Not sure whether Carol Mendelsohn‘s new series is going to be given a little breathing room? I’m sure. It will be.
Next, has the star of the series been a series regular/series lead on a hit primetime series previously? This is important because network brass will allow for a bit more time when it’s just a matter of a star’s audience finding her on her new series. That star’s publicist (in conjunction with the network’s publicity department and studio’s team) may kick things into high gear to try and help that along. So, give a point to series starring Calista Flockhart and Matthew Perry, but not necessarily to those starring Anne Heche or Wayne Brady.
Finally, any series that already has a series commitment or series order (check just under the titles of the series in the pilot order grids) gets a point. By my calculations, that puts series like ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, Six Degrees, and the untitled Patricia Heaton project; CBS’s Play Nice, Orpheus, and Shark; CW’s Split Decision; Fox’s Beyond and American Crime; and NBC’s Friday Night Lights, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and the untitled Tina Fey project ahead of the rest. Now, this is not to say these will be the HITS (or even that they’ll sell well at upfronts). This is just a sampling of series that do well on the point system I’ve detailed here, indicating they’ll be given more time than shows that don’t score well to hit their groove, once they are on the air.
Bring It Back To Casting
So, now that you’ve gotten your homework done about which shows have the best shot at staying on the air for more than a week or two once they debut, how do you go about finding out who’s casting them? First, check IMDb to see whether a series casting director is listed. Note: A pilot will frequently be cast by one CD while the regular episodes of that same show is cast by another. If you strike out there, visit Showfax.com to see whether sides have been posted for the project in question and, if so, by whose office. Also keep an eye on Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Production Weekly, and any of the other TV-specific sources I linked above. Since you already have a short(er) list of shows to target based on the point system, you could even return to Google News and set up alerts for the titles of the shows you’re most specifically targeting.
If you strike out on all of those fronts, get back to IMDb-Pro and look at the track record of each series’ exec producer and show runner. These people have history with casting directors from previous projects. And this is a very loyal segment of the business. You see JJ Abrams with another series? You betcha April Webster‘s involved.
I’ve heard some actors debate the effectiveness of sending a headshot and resumé to the production office on new series. I’d like to recommend that you not do this unless you have a one-on-one relationship with someone at the production office. Generally, series casting is not going to take place at the same location and no one at the production office is going to hang on to a “general submission” from an actor until the series is ordered and is actively casting. I’d recommend that you use this time to deepen your level of research on these series so that when you do get your opportunity, you are that much more prepared for it.
Ugh! Do I Hafta?
I’m certain that I lost some of you at the very beginning of this piece. Thank you for continuing to skim all the way to this closing paragraph. Believe me, I know this sort of risk management analysis is not every actor’s cup of tea! That said, if you are the type who can embrace this information and work it to your advantage, come episodic casting season, you’ll absolutely thank me for the edge. Happy handicapping! And don’t forget to check out the previews put on by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences each July! Everything you need to know about show tone, pacing, and style will come from that investment of $15 each of two Saturdays this summer. (Click the years to view invitations from events held in 2005, 2004, and 2003 in Los Angeles.)
So… ready to take all this on? Ready to cultivate The Edge? Get on it. 🙂
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000383.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.