Pilot ‘Previews’ and Pilot ‘Reviews’: Television Media and the 2007 Fall Shows

Recently, major entertainment websites and print media have begun to receive their DVD Screeners for the fall’s new shows. With only a glimpse of the shows being revealed at the Upfronts nearly four weeks ago, journalists are now getting a chance to see the entire episode that convinced a major network to give that show a spot on it schedule. However, they can’t tell you what they really think about them: based on Screener regulations, they are only able to offer a “preview” of the pilots. There will be no reviewing of this fall’s new shows as long as the Screener people get their way.

Now, while I haven’t quite been able to find any documented reason for why this is, allow me to speculate. I believe that the studios are afraid of the power that journalists wield when deciding whether a show is good or not. They fear that critics might be, well, critical of the work that they’ve done, and that said criticism will reduce the potential of that show in the fall. It’s a win-win for the studios, they believe, if all people can offer is vague commentary on the episode. Take for example TheTVAddict’s “preview” of Sarah Connor Chronicles (Pictured), FOX’s midseason entry:

THE GOOD: The action packed pilot had this TV Addict on the edge of his seat for the entire hour.

THE BAD: How exactly are they going to keep the action quotient up each and every week? If the season finale of HEROES taught us anything, it’s that with great power comes great respon… err, I mean – it’s that television budgets aren’t very conducive to an action packed weekly series.

For studios, they see this as fantastic: the good comment does little but help the show, and the writer isn’t able to offer enough substantiation for their complaint for it to feel definitive in the eyes of viewers (And let’s face it, that’s not even really a bad thing. Just a cautionary warning). These studios believe that they’ve found a way to protect their pilots from the savagery of the internet.

But what differentiates a preview from a review? Does it mean that you can’t be negative, or that negative comments are frowned upon? Or can you not discuss any details of the pilot? Or are you unable to offer examples of anything? And are people even paying attention to these guidelines? Well, let’s find take a look and find out just what that difference is.

Personally, I look at a review as something that offers an opinion, substantiates that opinion by using examples from the material being reviewed, and ends with some type of conclusion. And, well, as far as I can tell, that’s what TheFutonCritic is doing with their series of ‘First Looks’.From their ‘First Look’ at ABC’s ‘Big Shots’:

I guess at the end of the day do I really want to watch a show about mostly unfunny guys cheating on their wives and covering it up? Even without the above “hype,” I can’t help but be underwhelmed by the end product.

This is but a small part of a paragraph that basically tears the show apart for being a ridiculous mess. I cannot help but feel that this would qualify as a review by all standards: they even provide each pilot a star ratings (Big Shots received two stars, CBS’ Moonlight received one). In fact, compared to the TVAddict, this is a review and a half. However, they do have one thing in common: both stories remind readers that these pilots could suffer from casting changes, and that they are not a final approximation of the show’s quality.

Is this tagline all it takes for something to be designated a preview: a wimpy caveat that allows the studios to claim that the writer of the article saw an incomplete version and that the series itself is going to be as wicked awesome as Seinfeld and Cheers combined? Well, not exactly.

Because, listening to the Brill and Eric Watch TV Podcast (Sponsored by Zap2it.com), they offer an explanation for why these copies are not for review…and it’s basically so that no bad buzz takes place as I speculated above. In Brill and Eric’s case, they are calling them previews and just not bringing forward any negative comments…and if they have negative comments about a show, they’re not going to be talking about that show at all. Which seems like a decent way of dealing with the rules being applied to them. It also means that TheFutonCritic is certainly ignoring parts of those rules, knowing that they’re likely to get away with it.

They also mention the consequences of not paying attention to these “guidelines,” which appear to be really angry networks and studios denying media coverage from certain outlets. Like, they won’t be received screeners in future years. Now, after July this kind of guideline goes away somewhat as the fall season starts to kick off, but the fact of the matter is that they’re basically doing damage control for their new shows before they have a chance to “finalize” them. This seems like a shrewd business move, but I actually think that it is somewhat of a mistake for these networks who are trying to launch shows. In fact, instead of shrouding these pilots in secrecy where only TV critics can watch them and they self-destruct 30 seconds after they end (I’m speculating with that last one), I think they should let the public view them.

What recent fan campaigns have proven is that viewers like to have a say in what they see in television; in saving Jericho, fans of the series were establishing their own ability to watch what they want to watch, and feel like they were responsible for that process. If networks are really trying to make their new show successful, screening it for critics who can write vague previews is doing nothing but creating barriers between the show and its audience. Right now, our knowledge of these programs is limited to press releases and short clips, little more; what we need is something substantial.

And this is why I believe that the networks should actually be letting the internet in on what they’re cooking up for next season. Start streaming a pilot per week online, allowing for discussion about the show and for analysis of it. Not only are you getting an instant focus group, but the people who get hooked on the show will stay hooked. While it might limit some of your potential viewers who were on the fence and dislike the show, I think that you’ll gain a more rabid fanbase that can survive through a period where people might not just head first into the concept.

For now, however, we’ll have to deal with these ‘previews’ of varying degrees. Watch sites like TheTVAddict and TheFutonCritic to see how they continue to skirt around (Or adhere to) the guidelines set forward, and remain aware that they probably have more of an opinion about the series: the networks just don’t want you to know about it.

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Filed under 2007 Fall Preview, ABC, FOX, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Television

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