How TV shows get on the air

George Schweitzer explains CBS' process of developing new shows for the fall TV season.

We are now in the thick of development season in the TV business.

The process of getting a show on the air resembles a pyramid: it starts with our programming executives meeting with writers, producers, and agents to listen to pitches of new show concepts.

Television is a business of ideas, which makes new show development a thrilling experience; you never know where the next great project will come from, or the indelible mark that a resulting TV series could have on our culture.

Past performance, buzz, and the general zeitgeist all play a role in grabbing early attention. And as we work our way closer to May, ideas become outlines, outlines become scripts, scripts become pilots, and the select few pilots are ordered and become the new fall series.

At CBS, we're fortunate to have a dream team heading up our program development. Today, CBS has more top-10 shows than all the other networks combined, with strength across genres on every single night of the week. And, year after year, we continue to give America the entertainment it craves, from comedies like the "The Big Bang Theory" to dramas like "The Mentalist" to reality series like "Undercover Boss."

CBS has around 20 new projects in development this year--spanning the genres of drama, comedy, and reality--but only a few spots to fill. This allows us to be very selective. It's always a tough process, however, equal parts art and science, on the outcome of which rides billions of dollars and the rapt attention of the American public.

Once the pilots are produced and edited, we begin screening them. The screening process is pretty simple: we gather together with our CBS colleagues in rooms in New York and Los Angeles to watch the pilots and talk about them. (That's right: we get paid to watch TV!)

Around the same time, we screen the shows for people who represent true cross-sections of America at our TV City testing facility in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Our research team gathers and analyzes the reactions, feelings, and general buzz. They have every kind of qualitative and quantitative method at their disposal including brain scanning. (If you've ever wondered if marketers can read your mind, wonder no more!)

Not everyone likes the same shows, but total agreement isn't always necessary. What's necessary is that we select great shows that general audiences will want to see. Programmers evaluate the pilots on many levels: are they smart, interesting, exciting, funny? Will viewers care about the characters, and why? Is there a story that can be expanded and developed over time? Is this idea broad enough to gather and sustain a big following? Can we package and promote it in a manner that will get people to watch, and keep them watching?

A lot of tough questions for sure, but these are the challenges that we love to tackle every development season. So, stay tuned!

About the author

    George Schweitzer's position as chief marketing officer at CBS gives him a unique opportunity not only to observe but also to help shape the ways technology is altering the television industry. A communications major at Boston University who joined CBS after graduation some 30 years ago, George is also an unabashed technology geek who specializes in the latest home automation and entertainment gear.

     

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