Jeff Zucker: All of our TV pilots suck

Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal, did the opening keynote at the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas and talked about how — surprise, surprise — the industry is “under pressure.” I’ll bet that got some big laughs. It’s probably also not that surprising that he didn’t spend much time talking about the writers’ strike and its effect on the industry, although he did drop in that old line about “trading analog dollars for digital pennies,” just for good measure.

The part that I found really striking, though, was near the end, where Zucker starts talking about how he thinks the system of making dozens of expensive — and ultimately futile — TV pilots is a dumb way to do things. And when you listen to the numbers involved, it’s hard not to agree: The big five networks spent $500-million last year on about 80 pilots, he says, of which only eight were brought back for a second season. And even among those, “none could be considered a big success.”

What kind of crazy business spends a half a billion dollars on 80 prototypes, and gets less than 10 per cent that actually work? That might make sense if you’re an experimental research lab — preferably government funded, so that your success rate doesn’t actually matter — but shouldn’t the mass-market TV business have a bit better idea of what it’s doing than that? I assume that every one of those was greenlighted by someone who hoped they would get a monster hit like CSI or Law & Order, and then they could afford to write off all the other losers.

If I were a TV executive, I would put down the crack pipe or whatever they’re smoking over there and put some small amounts of money into a few Webisodes, or maybe look around at what’s catching the eye of my target market at or or places like that. Finance some things on the cheap and then turn them into something when they take off — flushing billions of dollars down the drain on pilots in hope that you’ll magically hit the CSI jackpot is insane.

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