Some background: I posted the following on an io9.com item announcing the cancellation by ABC of a series called Zero Hour after only three episodes. One of the writers there was calling it the "wackiest show on television that no one was watching" in the car crash sense, not that it was particularly good. I tried to watch the pilot one night and gave up after the first couple of acts; it just didn't interest me.
How this show - and others which seem to utterly tank leading to their sacking after a few episodes - got on the air in the first place has been a point of curiosity for me for a while and what follows is something I've discussed with a few people during bull sessions. I put it as a comment on io9, but since it was pretty long and relevant to what goes on here (yes, it's not a movie I watched, but it is commentary), I've brought it home. Enjoy.
Here's a crazy idea that's just so nuts it makes total sense: Instead of clueless network executives picking the series, how about putting the pilots online and letting the people who will actually be watching the shows decide?
We know darn well that a lot of shows are picked up from pilots because the producers/creators are pals with the network suits or the suits want to "maintain the relationship" with that creator in for some reason (e.g. past success; they murdered a teen hooker with a Senator in the Dominican Republic; frat brothers) but none of these matter to the folks who just want to be entertained by the boob tube after a hard day's labors.
Instead of risking millions of dollars on some coked-up suit's decision, why don't the networks put the pilots on their sites and blare, "HELP US PICK YOUR SHOWS!" It's free advertising and market research as people would comment that "The show's pretty funny, but the kid playing the son is an annoying brat" or "What the hell is this show about? Nazi clocks? Is Anthony Edwards ill? He doesn't look well." Whether pilot buzz online will turn into actual viewers in the fall (see: Snakes on a Plane) is unknown, but it can't be any worse than how the nets can't seem to pick a winner to save their butts.
Several years ago as part of e-Rewards, I was surveyed on a pair of TV shows. One was an episode of Private Practice which was already running and was a trip in a couple of spots because the visual effects weren't in so it was just green screen. (It was the view from Kate Walsh's beach house deck; the beach and ocean were fake; I caught the episode when it aired.)
The other was some horrific alleged sitcom pilot called Never Better starring Damon Wayans and Jane Lynch. Even though I was literally being paid to watch this, I wanted death for all involved but Lynch, who was funny like she was in 40-Year-Old Virgin. I think I even filled in a comment that "Everyone involved in the making of this show should be forbidden to work in the entertainment industry again or killed. Except Jane Lynch; she was funny." It never aired and for a time it wasn't even on IMDB; I'm surprised it was on now.
Imagine that instead of paying for market research for a small sampling the networks applied the same methods on their own with a much larger sample. Use the same demographic info collection and code the pages to verify people watched the whole thing (e-Rewards could tell if you switched browser windows) and use the method YouTube does to track how far in people watch. If you get a bunch of good feedback from a small demo but the overall stats show people are turning off after 15 minutes, that means you've got a loser. I remember trying to watch the first episode of the Charlie's Angels reboot a couple of years back. My girlfriend called and asked if I'd watched it and I replied, "I shut it off after 12 minutes. If hot girls with guns aren't holding my attention, you're doing something terribly wrong."
I'm sure some are thinking, "It takes time for shows to develop and find their voice. Agreed. Joss Whedon at his best needs about 6-12 episodes to get his shows roaring; The Vampire Diaries didn't get really interesting for 6-8 episodes; Star Trek series seemed to take two or three SEASONS to get going; but networks aren't giving shows much of a first chance, not a even a second chance these days. Series which may have been absolutely awesome after their 5th episodes are strangled in their cribs after two. Hill Street Blues would never have survived today and the only reason it was left on for a season back in the Eighties is because NBC simply had nothing to replace it with so they just let it continue.