Netflix has just done something it's never done before, according to a report at Deadline: ordered a pilot of a prospective TV show to see how well it works before ordering a full season. The show is named Little Sky, and would star Samara Weaving from the excellent Ready or Not (and Scream VI more recently).
In the past, Netflix has always jumped straight into taking a full season, and while the Deadline report says "Sources caution that this does not signal a permanent development shift. Little Sky is currently the only pilot planned at Netflix," it actually fills me with hope that this could be a positive change that eventually leads to a change in how many Netflix shows are prematurely canceled.
Especially because the Deadline report says Netflix execs "wanted to see a pilot to make sure the tone and the chemistry of the large ensemble were right, setting the project up for success". Which is exactly the point of pilots – so if it works here, it would make sense to do it for more shows, even if Deadline's sources say they won't for now.
For our readers young enough to not remember network TV, TV execs used to ask show creators to make an initial first episode – the 'pilot' – to see if the idea looked like it would work in practise. Some would nail the pilot and start making the series; some would clearly need work, and might arrive with a different cast or tone; and some would just be dropped quietly. If a series arrived, you could usually be sure that the TV network had a reasonable amount of faith in it (though not always).
Netflix's method of always ordering a whole season of anything its execs liked the sound of always seemed like a boon to creators, but over the last decade, it's led to a situation where we viewers feel reluctant to invest too much into a new Netflix show, because so many don't make it past the first season. Which means viewership is low, and even more shows might get canceled as a result, and people cancel their Netflix subscriptions as their faith dwindles.
It can be a downward spiral, and I think with the right approach, embracing the idea of pilot episodes might help to correct things.
Netflix could innovate on the pilot idea
This initial pilot is clearly designed to be a 'behind closed doors' kind of thing, where Netflix execs will make the decision. But one of the advantages Netflix has compared to the old TV networks is that it's a software platform too, and it could do clever things with pilots to help decide if they should get a chance to join the ranks of the best Netflix shows.
For example, it could let viewers see the pilots, and give them ratings afterwards to decide what kind of level of interest they might get. Aside from helping it to pick the most popular ideas, it could also mean that niche shows get more of a chance by receiving budgets that match up with the level of interest, so something with a small but determined viewership doesn't get canceled because it cost too much.
If creators aren't sure about what kind of tone to take in a show, they could always create two different cuts of a pilot, and run a rest to see which is better-received.
And there's the potential for these pilots to help build excitement and word-of-mouth for a show before it's even launched, helping things to cut through the mass of stuff launched every week on Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Disney Plus etc etc etc.
It's not a magic wand to fix Netflix's problems, but as soon as I saw that Netflix was taking this approach, I thought "Oh, thanks goodness". Maybe taking a steadier approach to launching shows will mean a steadier approach to maintaining them – and the potential for innovation if Netflix embraced the idea really excites me.