Pilot season is underway here in Hollywood and for those who work in television, that means two or three of the most nerve-wracking months of the year. Scripts are purchased, pilots are cast, directors are hired. All the while, writers tear out what remains of their hair while trying to accommodate network notes and do their best to restrain themselves when the exec covering their show says they have to meet with Katherine Heigl for the female lead. And that doesn't even begin to describe the stress of knowing that odds are only half - if not fewer - of the pilots ordered will actually get picked up as a series.
For a slightly dramatized look at the pilot process, rent the little-seen film The TV Set, written and directed by Jake Kasdan. David Duchovny plays a writer who struggles to keep his artistic vision for a serious dramatic show intact in the face of miscasting and clueless notes from the network president, played by Sigourney Weaver. I once asked writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Andromeda, Alphas) if he'd seen the movie and his response was, "The TV Set is the most terrifyingly real movie ever made." I have several friends who work in television, and much of what the film depicts is in line with their experience. One friend even found the film too painful to laugh at because it was so true.
For a more first-hand look at the process of developing and selling a show, check out this excellent article from Third Beat, which reproduces an archived Usenet post written years ago by Louis CK. In it, he goes step-by-step through the process of going from idea to network pickup. Here's a taste.
So you are trying to get the best actors, director and writer in the world at the same time that everyone else in town is trying… Okay, so casting. First you have to hire a casting director. There are only a few good ones and everybody wants them. you have to meet with a lot of people who tell you some ideas of who they might cast in your show. If you click with someone you hire them (if you can) and start casting. You see thousands of horrible actors and hear your pilot script read over and over and over and over again.
At the same time, offers are going out to very big named actors, none of which you think fit the parts at all, but you are told they will help your show get on the air. (In my case, HBO doesn’t give a shit about that, so we were able to cast people according to their funninness and acting. Hooray for me) At one point you’re told that your pilot is going to star Brendan Frazier and Jody Foster. At the last minute they both pass and you end up with Kirk Cameron and Shelly Biglachnataps. The way the casting works is that you make usually three top picks for every part in the show. You now take these people to the studio and they decide if they like your choices. If they do, you take those three folks now to network. THey sign what is called a test deal, which means they make their acting deal before the network even sees them.
So yo uhave to negotiate a deal with three actors per part, even though only one of them will be hired. So the three actors (per part) go to the network and audition for LEs moonves or whoever. He/she/they pick one person and you are cast. OR (and usually) they don’t like any of them and you have to start all over again and now time is fucking running out and every good actor is already on a show.
Then, if you want a hint of the work that awaits each week once your show gets picked up, check out this fascinating article from Simpsons writer Bill Oakley about the process of writing what would become the Simpsons' 100th episode. It's called "The Lost Jokes and Story Arcs of "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song"
This episode, from Season Five, had more changes than our normal episode. It changed a lot because there are some story problems which I think are still in the final episode. And you see through the different incarnations of the script, from the pitch, to the outline, to the script, to what aired — the story changes somewhat in each version. And I don't necessarily think it ever quite got there. I think the story really should have been a 45 minute story, and cutting it to 22 minutes caused it to suffer a little bit.
In retrospect, I think we should have tried to figure out some way to prune out some of the complicated things in the story to make it cleaner. Because what the story really was, in this pitch, was a funny and very clean first act and two subsequent acts that never quite approached the level of the first one. I think the jokes in every version of this are pretty solid, but what happens with Skinner and what he does when he's gone changes in each draft. And what the repercussions of that are, was that the Flanders and Homer B story got cut entirely in the broadcast version.