How TV shows get on the air

pyramid1_1_270x280We 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.”

programdevelopment_120x160CBS 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!

A funny thing happened on the way to my iPad…

The Flash-Matic remote control cost $399.95 when it was originally sold in 1955.

The Flash-Matic remote control cost $399.95 when it was originally sold in 1955.

This week, I got two technology devices. They cost the same amount of money. One was 55 years old and I got it after a fierce online auction…the other was about 55 hours new, and I had preordered it online.

Both gadgets set out to change the way people consume and manage their media. They employed similar marketing pitches along the lines of, “It’s advanced. It’s magical. It will change your life.” One was a rare 1955 Zenith Flash-Matic remote control. The other was the “magical” Apple iPad.

Since you’ve probably heard more than you want to know about the iPad, let me tell you a little about this technology relic: The Flash-Matic remote control.

Introduced by Zenith in 1955, it was the first technology of its kind to offer wireless, cordless remote control of a television set. By zapping each corner of the set with a beam of light from the trusty green gun, viewers could change the channel, adjust the volume, and turn the set on or off, all without getting up. When it was originally sold in 1955 the Flash-Matic cost $399.95 and came bundled with a compatible Zenith television set; that is the equivalent of more than $3,000 in today’s dollars. I bought it on eBay for $501.

Flash-Matic tuning wasn’t necessarily the most effective way of controlling the set. Viewers often couldn’t remember which corner did what, and a ray of sunlight could inadvertently change the channel. Still, it highlighted and played to a consumer need: the desire to kick back and enjoy TV without leaving the couch. And that was 55 years ago–what a concept!

Kick back and relax: An early adopter zaps her Zenith TV set with the first wireless television remote control.

Kick back and relax: An early adopter zaps her Zenith TV set with the first wireless television remote control.

It’s exciting to think about which consumer appetites the iPad is filling and how it could evolve into a device that’s as integrated into daily life as the television remote control. What starts out as a quirky rarity used mostly by highly motivated early adopters can sometimes morph into an enabler of daily routines for the masses.

In the words of American revolutionary and early tech-lover Thomas Jefferson, “Every generation needs a new revolution.” What will time say about the iPad? It’s tough to know. If it makes consuming and enjoying media a simpler, more enjoyable experience, consumers will likely embrace it. The one thing we can be sure of is that it, too, will one day be a relic.

Report from the digital den

Talk about the ultimate man cave. I dropped in at the CNET testing headquarters in New York City and visited with two of the smartest guys in the TV/video space, David Katzmaier and John Falcone. I rely on these guys to keep me up to date on all the latest and greatest in TV-viewing technology.

Taking a behind-the-scenes look at CNET's television-reviewing lab.

Taking a behind-the-scenes look at CNET’s television-reviewing lab.

Their man cave was more of a man cavern! It consisted of eight 50-plus-inch Internet-connected HDTVs loaded with all kinds of shows, applications, and add-on devices. It’s their job to review and test the newest products in the digital home space. From TV widgets to Blu-ray players to Roku boxes and Boxee, they had everything a TV technophile could possibly hope for…and a comfy leather couch to boot.

And though it’s exciting to see what’s new and hot, I always remind myself and my staff that mass-market HDTV sets are what the majority of our viewers are working with. According to David and John, the average TV set in the U.S. is a 37-inch LCD that retails for about $500 and is bought at a big-box retailer. That’s how America consumes television.

Naturally, that begs the question of whether (and when) people are willing to upgrade their sets once again to the latest innovation: 3D. As David and John recently reported, Panasonic’s new 50-inch 3D sets, bundled with a Blu-ray player and glasses, are now available in Best Buy stores.

At this point, I’m not so sure that people want special glasses as part of their TV experience at home. People have a hard enough time keeping track of their remote controls–making sure they have ample pairs of compatible glasses could be a chore. In all the research and studies we’ve encountered, simplicity is central to the TV experience; if it’s not easy, people won’t do it. (Stay tuned for future posts here about the impact of 3D on the world of home entertainment.)

For tech geeks like me who are always looking for fresh, new ways to enhance our home viewing experience, the CNET Reviews team offers expert insight. Even if I can’t always make it down to their man cavern, I always keep an eye on CNET’s Television Central to keep tabs on the latest trends and innovations. For now, no matter how you look at it, the digital den is shaping up to be one very cool place.