Friday, April 20, 2007

Pilot Academy

We're in the middle of pilot season and a majority of these new shows will never see the light of day. In the past I've talked about doing audience tests for pilots on planes. But, regardless of the process, some quality shows won't be picked up.

Then what?

Why don't the Emmy Awards embrace these failures and use the chance to engage TV viewers? The Academy can use a panel to select the top five failed pilots, post them online and then let viewers vote on them. The winning show gets a 13-ep order from "The CW" or a cable station.

Seems odd that a failed pilot might win an award, but there is a precedent. Joanne Ostrow wrote about "Dear Diary" in the Denver Post on Oct 27, 1997. Here's an excerpt:
Bebe Neuwirth ("Cheers") stars in a witty comedy based on a woman's diary entries in which she muses on her life as a mom, a wife, a magazine art director, an introspective 40-year-old in Manhattan. The casting is terrific, the tone is urbane, the direction is fast-paced and clever. "Dear Diary" is a must-see comedy.

But you won't see it on the small screen. It's too good for television.

"Dear Diary" was rejected by all the TV networks, only to receive the 1997 Academy Award for live-action short film. The film was showcased at the Denver International Film Festival this weekend, and producer Barry Jossen was present to talk about the project.

"At the test screening, people complained they couldn't go into the kitchen for a beer during the show and still follow it," Jossen said last week. ABC, which had commissioned the pilot, found it "too dense with information." The lack of a laugh track, the fact that it was "too New York," "too upscale" and "too sophisticated" weighed against it.

The intent of Jossen and writer-director David Frankel was to do an O. Henry-like show of small stories, illustrating the interconnectedness of people's lives.

The network's first suggestion was to make the lead character 20-something. ABC also wanted Neuwirth's character to be "warmer, funnier," with a less monotone voice-over, and they worried that Lilith the intellectual would be detected in Neuwirth, the actress who had played her. In short, they wanted nothing to do with "Dear Diary."

The failure of Oscar-winning "Dear Diary" to gain admittance to prime time illustrates the narrow thinking in TV. In the scramble for ratings and ad dollars, lowest-common-denominator programming still rules. The networks want "accessible" programming, and that usually means familiar, unthreatening and predictable clones.
Sounds like "Dear Diary" may have found a home on FX today. The show was only ten years ahead of its time.

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