A broadcast television series starts as a pitch. If a network decides to buy that pitch, it becomes a script. If that script goes over well with the network, it becomes a pilot. And if that pilot connects with test audiences and fulfills the programming needs of the network, it becomes a television series. And if that television series fails to generate meaningful viewership, that television series is canceled. This is the circle of broadcast television life.
It’s not a closed system. The audience—represented by random test audiences at the pilot stage and an absurdly small number of Nielsen households at the broadcast stage—have historically had their say in which television shows live or die. However, viewers’ role has shifted in recent years as the TV development process becomes increasingly open. In the current digital journalism climate, the internet knows the moment that a network accepts a pitch for a new television series, the moment that script is ordered to pilot, and the moment that pilot is either accepted or rejected. And thus viewers have the chance to feel like they’re a part of every stage of this process, offering feedback on the development deal, following casting on the show’s pilot, and then eventually reacting to whether or not the series makes it onto the network’s schedule.
This new reality of how we experience TV development is how Drew, a modern-day reimagining of Nancy Drew as a thirtysomething New York City detective, became a canceled television series without ever becoming a television series.
When the script order was announced in October of last year, the news was reported by various trade publications, and circulated by a wide range of pop-culture websites, including The Mary Sue, Bustle, and The A.V. Club. Drew experienced a second wave of press when the script was picked up to pilot, followed by reports that CBS was casting a woman of color in the lead role and the announcement that Person Of Interest alum Sarah Shahi would play the fictional sleuth. Interest in Drew was partially fueled by the pilot’s familiar source material, but it also reflects how pilot development is perceived as an increasingly public process, with the show becoming more concrete the more it’s covered and engaged with online. By the time the pilot was delivered to CBS, Drew was much more than just another prospective TV series within cultural discourse. It was an extension of CBS’ move toward “female empowerment” and a positive step forward for television diversity more broadly.
And so it’s understandable that when Deadline reported that Drew wasn’t picked up to series by CBS because it “skewed too female,” people were angry. Based on the narrative presented by these online outlets, and supported by CBS’ decision to announce its plans to cast a woman of color, Drew came to represent a meaningful entrée in an ongoing struggle for representation in television. And for a Nancy Drew adaptation to be deemed “too female” has an undeniable ring of absurdity to it.
But as I read the various “#TooFemale” tweets on Twitter and the numerous news reports—many from outlets that had covered the project throughout its development—about CBS’ decision, I was struck by how much the expanded coverage of pilot season has shaped our reaction to a new show failing to make a network’s fall schedule. Multiple websites—in headlines or in SEO-friendly URLs—reported that Drew had been “canceled.” But as far as CBS was concerned, Drew never really existed. Though a conversation formed around its symbolic value, Drew never exited a process governed by its economic value, one wherein “skewing too female” (or skewing too anything, depending on the desired demographics for a given network) is a primarily quantitative concern. If Deadline’s report is accurate (CBS denied it yesterday, albeit with a generic “we chose the best pilot”), Drew wasn’t “canceled” because executives dismissed its premise/content as “too female,” which is not a direct quote from any individual at CBS, but rather Deadline’s own industry speak. CBS chose not to take the show to series because its test audience results generated a demographic breakdown that would be more challenging to sell to advertisers than the network’s other pilots.
I do not make this point of clarification to cut off criticism of the compromised cultural politics of television development. The fact that network shows are judged based on their ability to be sold to advertisers as opposed to their quality or their contribution to a larger cultural conversation—an unavoidable reality established over 80 years ago by the Communications Act of 1934—is not something to be celebrated. The conservatism created by a commercial mandate is something we should absolutely interrogate, and I do not want this to be read as a defense of the ways that conservatism could lead networks to avoid projects that push boundaries in meaningful and important ways related to gender, race, sexuality, and other identity categories.
However, it’s important to place CBS’ decision making in context of its competitive place within the television industry. If, as reported, Drew appealed to women but struggled to appeal to men, the show became a challenge for a network that attracts advertisers with gender-balanced programming. CBS is aiming for the broadest possible audience, which means shows that cut off male (or female) viewership limit the size of their audience, and thus their ability to become long-running hits that CBS can eventually sell into syndication. (The network’s ultimate goal.)
In other words: If both your mom and dad don’t want to watch a CBS drama, it’s already at a disadvantage. And while it’s true that men often watch and enjoy shows intended to appeal to women, industry research promotes caution. In a recent blog post about pilot testing, retired programming executive Preston “Masked Scheduler” Beckman offered a collection of “program research homilies” from his time at NBC, including “it’s easier to get women to watch shows intended for men than it is to get men to watch shows intended for women.” And while I might not like the resulting gender imbalance in the leads on broadcast series that results from this homily, I also have to admit that it’s echoed in online discussion among both viewers and critics. Shows “intended for women” like The Good Wife face an uphill battle compared to those “intended for men.”
Additionally, “skewing too female” carries specific risk for CBS when it has a competitor for whom “skewing too female” wouldn’t be a problem. ABC has focused its programming energy on female audiences with its TGIT lineup and reality franchises, making it the broadcast outlet with the strongest claim to advertisers looking to target women. CBS does not have that reputation, and would struggle to compete for those ad dollars with ABC, corporate sibling The CW, and cable channels—Lifetime, Bravo, E!, etc.—that explicitly work to target women during primetime. If Drew was developed at ABC, it likely wouldn’t have “skewed too female.” But it was CBS that invested in the property, and thus CBS’ standards became the judgment of its suitability for broadcast.
It’s right to be frustrated with CBS’ unwillingness to program a show like Drew, especially after they’ve revealed a fall schedule with only one female-led drama (Madam Secretary) and six new series with male leads. And yet as depressing as this might be, Drew’s development is arguably a step forward forward for CBS, even if it didn’t make it to series. The testing results do not erase the fact that Drew generated significant and sustained support at the network: CBS spent a lot of money developing the property, committed to a non-white lead, and kept the show in contention until the very last day of deliberations. In addition, the show that Drew was reportedly in direct competition with was a female-led drama from the same writers starring Katherine Heigl. And while the protagonist of Doubt is a bit less aspirational than Nancy Drew (and Heigl’s casting makes no gesture toward racial diversity), the show nonetheless has CBS pushing against its reputation for conservative programming choices: Doubt will make Laverne Cox the first transgender series regular in broadcast television history.
But Doubt wasn’t already a television show before it was picked up to series earlier this week. It was originally developed for the 2015-16 broadcast season, and pushed to this year for recasting. It isn’t based on an existing property, and thus failed to generate any serious coverage outside of the trade press. No major websites were speculating about what it would mean if it were to go to series, despite the fact that Cox’s breakthrough (even as a supporting player) is at least as—if not more—significant than a non-white Nancy Drew filtered through the generic CBS procedural framework. Doubt was, like most of the pilots ordered by the networks this year, just an idea, which became a script, which became a pilot, all without ever becoming something concrete and tangible in cultural discourse.
It makes sense that Drew was different, and it’s totally understandable for fans of the property and proponents for stronger female representation on television to be frustrated that CBS couldn’t find room on its schedule for two new shows with female leads (especially after losing three, in Supergirl, The Good Wife, and CSI: Cyber). And the fact that Doubt was pushed to midseason creates a notable and lamentable absence of female-led shows in the network’s fall drama lineup. It’s also incredibly disheartening that the development logics listed above supported CBS believing that the basic idea of a MacGyver reboot—left without a pilot after firing all but two male actors and bringing in an entirely new writer—is more marketable to advertisers than Drew. No one is denying that’s an indictment of the network development model.
However, the way this frustration has been pinned to a show that no one has even seen originates in the way the internet treated Drew like a television show long before it became one. Television development is compromising and limiting, and any story about a pilot order comes with an unspoken asterisk that what eventually gets to air could have been destroyed by network notes, or rejected by test audiences, or just marginally weaker in testing among a particular demographic than a similar show it’s competing against (and thus the “lesser” show). Beyond knowing—if Deadline’s report is accurate—that it “tested well” in addition to skewing female (The Hollywood Reporter has since cited sources it “did not come in as strong as the network would have hoped”), no one has any idea if Drew was actually any good, or whether the writing of the character embraced its potential feminism or fleshed out her race and ethnicity in meaningful ways beyond the simple fact of casting a woman of color. None of this coverage included analysis of the show’s pilot script, and thus no one actually knows what CBS rejected at the end of a lengthy process, during which it expressed its confidence in the pilot at various stages.
We just have an idea of what it might have been and what it might have represented, neither of which were ever going to accurately represent CBS’ decision making in this process. It’s an incongruence endemic to the way we talk about television pilots, and one likely to foster more situations like this one in the years to come.