In the age of DVRs, YouTube, Blu-Ray players, Netflix Instant and BitTorrents, the television networks are having to work harder than ever to entice viewers. So like a rich old man trying to woo a leggy model, they’re taking out their wallets. “There’s no doubt that companies are spending more on pilots,” says one television producer. The pilots for two of this fall’s most buzzed about new shows – Fox’s time-travel-family-drama-with-dinosaurs, Terra Nova, and ABC’s ‘60s stewardess drama, Pan Am – reportedly have budgets with eight digits to the left of the decimal point.
Shoots in Australia, numerous delays, and Steven Spielberg onboard as an executive producer helped push the pilot budget for Terra Nova, which airs tonight, at somewhere between $10 million and $20 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. That makes it easily the most expensive of this season’s new offerings and one of the costliest debuts ever.
“You have to ‘eventize’ programming so that people don't just watch, they watch live and they're afraid that if they don't watch live, complete with commercials, they'll be left behind,” says Daniel Fienberg, the executive editor and television critic at the entertainment industry website HitFix. “So one way to do that is to make pilots bigger and better than anything viewers have seen before, to say ‘Here's a movie. On your TV. For free. Every week…. Don't you dare miss it!’” It’s a strategy that’s worked for HBO, where recent pilots for Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones have justified, and even used, their exorbitant price tags to generate publicity, build an audience, and grab critical acclaim. The major networks have certainly succeeded with the pricey pilot model before; recent examples including shows like ABC’s Lost and Fox’s Fringe. But after years of flooding the airwaves with cheaper-to-produce reality fare, the networks have now swung back to shelling out more to develop flashy dramas, perhaps to imitate—and compete with—buzzy series like AMC’s Mad Men.
Of course, it takes more than big bucks, hoards of extras, marquee names, exotic locations, and period costuming for a show to work. “You never know what’s going to strike and be interesting for the audience,” says Bob Balaban, a veteran film and television actor, director, and producer. “The audience doesn’t care if it’s a big production as long as they like the story and the characters,” he adds, noting the success of smart shows with humble beginnings like FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Sons of Anarchy. Money, as the cliché goes, isn’t everything. “I think you can spend $50,000 and get a great pilot,” says Balaban.
The buzz is that Pan Am, which made its debut Sunday, has both the brains and the beauty to succeed. Not only does it look “spectacular” says Fienberg, it “also has a script, while Terra Nova has some struggles there.”
On the other hand, some of this season’s more affordable pilots – short comedies that likely cost just a few hundred thousand – might not even be worth their paltry-for-Hollywood expenditures. “If the pilots for Whitney, Work It, and I Hate My Teenage Daughter cost $50 combined,” quips Fienberg, “somebody at NBC, ABC, and FOX got bilked.”