Understanding the Broadcast Network Selling, Buying & Producing Cycle

Carole Kirschner Understanding the Network Cycle.jpg

People say the broadcast network system is on the way out, overtaken by cable, streaming and digital platforms. But trust me, it’s not dead yet. Even with low ratings, more people see broadcast network shows than almost every other distribution type. And for writers, the best part of broadcast network is that you get residuals. Something that doesn’t usually happen in streaming.

Unlike cable or streaming, network television (ABC, CBS, CW, FOX and NBC) have specific yearly time periods in which they develop, produce and order new shows to series. Here’s how it works:

Pitching season

Pitching season, which runs from late Summer through late Fall, is when writers pitch their great ideas for new series to television executives. During this time, execs will hear hundreds of pitches. When I was at CBS in Comedy Development we would hear about 500 pitches a year. From these many, many (many!) pitches, each network will order roughly  50-60 scripts each in the Comedy Department and the Drama Department.

Development

From Fall through Winter, the lucky (read: hard working, insanely prepared, resilient) writers will go to work turning their idea into an actual pilot script. They’ll go through several rounds of notes with the studio or producers who helped them pitch the show, and also with the network. They’ll turn in their final drafts anywhere between mid-December to early January. 

Pilot orders

Once the network execs have had a chance to read through all of the finished pilot scripts, they’ll choose less than half of them to actually be shot. In 2019, ABC ordered 9 drama pilots and 7 comedy pilots, while NBC ordered 7 drama pilots and 7 comedy pilots. Those chosen will be cast and filmed from February through April. Many factors go into making these decisions, like budget, what fits in best with their current series, who the creative auspices are and yes, politics. They don’t want to piss off any of the major players in the industry. This can be one of the most brutal times for writers, when great ideas that were turned into great scripts still don’t move forward. It’s heartbreaking… but that’s the business part of show business. 

Series Pick-up orders

Final edits of pilots are delivered to the network in May. This is when the waiting begins. (If you close your eyes and listen closely, you can hear the nervous breathing of every actor and writer in Hollywood.) The network will finally (finally!) start ordering pilots to series shortly before Upfronts. 

Upfronts

Upfronts, which take place in New York during the third week of May, are when networks screen pilots of their brand new series for advertisers, who buy commercial air time “up front.” You might want to wait another week to celebrate your success, though. Kevin Hart once had a sitcom that was about to be presented at Upfronts, but the network decided not to pick it up after all… just before he walked on stage.   

Staffing season

Now that the networks have officially announced all of the new series they’ll be airing in the Fall, nearly every writer in Hollywood starts the song and dance of staffing season: taking meeting after meeting, hoping to get hired to be in the writers’ room of one of the new network shows. 

And by the time staffing season is finished, it’s time for pitching season all over again. It’s exhausting, but if you manage to sell and produce a breakout hit network TV series, the rewards can be spectacular. 

Good luck!

What has your experience been like with the network cycle? Tweet me @CaroleKirsch!