A "television pilot" (also known as a "pilot" or a "pilot episode") is a standalone episode of a television series that is used to sell the show to a television network. At the time of its creation, the pilot is meant to be the testing ground to gauge whether a series will be successful, and is therefore a test episode of an intended television series. It is an early step in the development of a television series, much like pilot lights or pilot studies serve as precursors to the start of larger activity, or pilot holes prepare the way for larger holes.
Television networks use pilots to discover whether an entertaining concept can be successfully realized. After seeing this sample of the proposed product, networks will then determine whether the expense of additional episodes is justified. They are best thought of as prototypes of the show that is to follow, because elements often change from pilot to series. Variety estimates that only a little over a quarter of all pilots made for American television proceed to the series stage, although the figure may be even lower.
Most pilots are never publicly screened if they fail to sell a series. If a series eventuates, pilots are usually – but not always – broadcast as the introductory episode of the series.
Each summer, the major American broadcast television networks – including ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC – receive about 500 brief elevator pitches for new shows from writers and producers. That fall, each network requests scripts for about 70 pitches and, the following January, orders about 20 pilot episodes. Actors come to Los Angeles from within the area or elsewhere in the United States and around the world to audition for them. By spring, actors are cast and production crews assembled to produce the pilots.
Casting is a lengthy and very competitive process. For the 1994 pilot of Friends, casting director Ellie Kanner reviewed more than 1,000 actors' head shots for each of the six main roles. She summoned 75 actors for each role to audition, then chose some to audition again for the show's creators. Of this group, the creators chose some to audition again for Warner Bros. Television executives, who chose the final group of a few actors to audition for NBC executives; as they decide whether to purchase a pilot, network executives generally have ultimate authority over casting. Since the networks work on the same shared schedule, directors, actors and others must choose the best pilot to work for with the hopes that the network will choose it. If it is not chosen, they have wasted their time and money and may have missed out on better career opportunities.
Once they have been produced, the pilots are presented to studio and network executives, and in some cases to test audiences; at this point, each pilot receives various degrees of feedback and is gauged on its potential to advance from one pilot to a full-fledged series. Using this feedback, and factoring in the current status and future potential of their existing series, each network chooses about four to eight pilots for series status. The new series are then presented at the networks' annual upfronts in May, where they are added to network schedules for the following season (either for a fall or "mid-season" winter debut) and at the upfront presentation the shows are shown to potential advertisers and the networks sell the majority of the advertising for their new pilots. The survival odds for these new series are low, as typically only one or two of them survive for more than one season.
Types of pilot
If a network is not totally sold on a potential series' premise but still wants to see its on-screen execution, and since a single pilot can be expensive to produce, a pilot presentation may be ordered. Depending on the potential series' nature, a pilot presentation is a one-day shoot that, when edited together, gives a general idea of the look and feel of the proposed show. Presentations are usually between seven to ten minutes. However, these pilot-presentations will not be shown on the air unless more material is subsequently added to them to make them at least 22 or 45 minutes in length, the actual duration of a nominally "30 minute" or "60 minute" television program (taking into account television commercials that fill the remaining time). Occasionally, more than one pilot is commissioned for a particular proposed television series to evaluate what the show would be like with modifications. Star Trek and All in the Family are famous examples of this presentation-to-pilot-to-series situation.
An example of change between the making of a pilot and the making of a series is To Tell the Truth in 1956. The show's original title at pilot was Nothing But the Truth and was hosted by Mike Wallace; by the time it became a series, the title was changed and Bud Collyer was tapped as host.
Pilots usually run as the first episode of the series, and more often than not are used to introduce the characters and their world to the viewer. However, the post-pilot series may become so different that it would not make sense for the pilot to be aired. In this case, the pilot (or portions of it) is often re-shot, recast, or rewritten to fit the rest of the series. The pilot for Gilligan's Island, for instance, showed the castaways becoming stranded on the island. However, three roles were recast before going to series, with the characters either modified or completely altered to the point where the pilot could no longer be used as a regular episode. As a result, CBS aired Gilligan's second produced episode, which had the characters already stranded on the island, first; the story from the pilot was largely reworked into a flashback episode which aired later (with several key scenes re-shot). Even Gilligan's theme song, which was originally done as a calypso number, was rewritten and recomposed to be completely different. Another example was in the original Star Trek where most of the footage of the original pilot, "The Cage," was incorporated into the acclaimed two-part episode, "The Menagerie," with the story justification that it depicted events that happened several years earlier. Conversely, the second pilot for Star Trek, "Where No Man Has Gone Before", aired as the third episode of the show's first season, even though it included some casting and costuming differences that set it apart from the preceding episodes (enough that a literary work based on one of its spin-offs would actually place the episode in a parallel universe).
If a network orders a two-hour pilot, it will usually broadcast it as a television film to recoup some of the costs even if the network chooses to not order the show. Sometimes, a made-for-TV-movie is filmed as the pilot, but because of actors not being available, the series intro is reshot and the first reshot episode is considered the pilot. The original Cagney & Lacey movie co-starred Loretta Swit (of M*A*S*H fame) as Chris Cagney, but when she could not get out of her contract, they reshot it with Meg Foster, who after the first season was replaced with Sharon Gless; therefore, the original movie is not considered a pilot, and is not included in the series collections on DVD. In some cases, this does not hamper broadcast, such as Jackie Cooper playing the role of Walter Carlson in the TV movie pilot of the 1975 series The Invisible Man, but replaced by Craig Stevens for the remainder of the series; the pilot is still considered part of the series and released to DVD as such.
The majority of TV pilots are aired twice (typically in September and December), while some have aired more times.
Examples of pilots airing three times, typically in September, December and June, include:
- Scrubs (first airing: 15.4 million; second airing: 10 million; third airing: 6.5 million)
- Medium (first airing: 16.1 million; second airing: 9.3 million; third airing: 5.2 million)
- The Office (first airing: 11.2 million; second airing: 3.4 million; third airing: 4.2 million)
- Ghost Whisperer (first airing: 11.3 million; second airing: 8.8 million; third airing: 4.9 million)
- The Good Wife (first airing: 13.7 million; second airing: 5 million; third airing: 6.9 million)
Some examples of pilots airing more than three times:
- ABC aired the pilot of Lost five times (first airing: 18.7 million viewers; second airing: 8.8 million; third airing: 11.6 million; fourth airing: 8.1 million; fifth airing: 6.4 million)
- Desperate Housewives (first airing: 21.6 million; second airing: 7 million; third airing: 12.9 million; fourth airing: 7.4 million)
- My Name Is Earl (first airing: 15.2 million; second airing: 5.3 million; third airing: 8.3 million; fourth airing: 4.8 million)
Since the mid-1990s, television producers and networks have increasingly used presentation tapes called "demos" in lieu of full-length pilots. These demos tend to be substantially shorter than a standard episode, and make limited use of original sets and post-production elements. The idea is merely to showcase the cast and the writing. These types of pilots are rarely broadcast, if ever, although the material is sometimes partially fitted onto a future episode of the resulting series. A demo prepared at an early stage, normally using amateur equipment, is also known as a sizzle script.
Some series sold using demos:
- 101 Dalmatians
- Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog
- Batman: The Animated Series
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
- King of the Hill
- Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge
- One Tree Hill
- PB&J Otter
- Pepper Ann
- Superman: The Animated Series
- Saul of the Mole Men
The "demo" episode is not a new concept, as The Munsters was sold on the basis of a 13-minute demo episode in 1964, while Who's Afraid of Diana Prince? in the late 1960s attempted without success to launch a comedic Wonder Woman series.
A backdoor pilot is one made as a standalone movie, such that it can be broadcast in its own right even if not picked up as a series. It is distinguished from a simple pilot in that it has a dual purpose: It has an inherent commercial value of its own while also being a proof of concept for a series.
This definition also includes episodes of one show introducing a spin-off. Such "backdoor pilots" most commonly focus on an existing character from the parent series who is planned for his or her own spinoff show – for example, when Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), an established character on The Cosby Show, was planned to be spun off to A Different World, a Cosby Show episode was devoted to Denise traveling to visit the college which would become the new show's setting, and meeting some of the new show's supporting characters.
In other cases, however, an episode of the parent show may also focus on one or more guest characters who have not previously appeared in the show; for example, the JAG season eight episodes "Ice Queen" and "Meltdown" introduced the characters for what would become NCIS, while the NCIS season six "Legend" two-part episode introduced the characters for what would become NCIS: Los Angeles. Similarly, the backdoor pilot for the television sitcom Empty Nest was an episode of The Golden Girls, which relegated that show's regular stars to supporting characters in an episode devoted to new characters who were introduced as their neighbors. Feedback on the episode resulted in Empty Nest being extensively reworked before its debut; while the concept and the "living next to the Golden Girls" setting was retained, the series ended up featuring different characters than those in the original Golden Girls episode.
Not all backdoor pilots lead to a series. In 1968, the Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth" was intended as the pilot for a spin-off of the same name, featuring a human, taken from Earth's far past and raised by aliens to be sent to watch over Earth in the 1960s; while the series was not picked up, its characters have appeared in numerous non-canon Trek productions set in the 20th century. The series finale of One Day at a Time in May 1984 was supposed to serve as a backdoor pilot to a spin-off featuring Pat Harrington, Jr.'s character of Dwayne Schneider in a new setting, but CBS ultimately passed on the potential series. An example from an animated series would be in The Fairly OddParents episode "Crash Nebula," which was used as a backdoor pilot for a series called Crash Nebula that was never produced. In a more recent example (June 2010), Lifetime pursued a spinoff procedural drama of Army Wives featuring Brigid Brannagh's character, police officer Pamela Moran. The fourth season episode "Murder in Charleston" was intended to serve as a backdoor pilot for the proposed spin-off. The episode sees Moran teaming up with an Atlanta-based detective on a murder that is related to a case she has been working on for the past three years. At the end of the episode, the detective encourages Moran to take a detective's exam, and to look for her if she is in Atlanta. In September 2010, however, Lifetime declined to pick up the project to series.
The Gossip Girl episode "Valley Girls" was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a prequel spin-off series starring Brittany Snow as a young Lily van der Woodsen; the series was to be set in the 1980s. However, the show was not picked up. "The Farm" was an episode of NBC's The Office that was supposed to act as a backdoor pilot for a spin-off series starring Rainn Wilson and focusing on his character, Dwight Schrute. Upon review, the spin-off was not picked up by NBC and the original version was never aired; instead it was reworked with additional material shot later, as the original version contained "certain aspects that were appropriate for a pilot of a new show".
A historically important venue for backdoor pilots has been the anthology series. They have variously been used as a place to show work still being actively considered for pickup, and as a venue for completed work already rejected by the network. With the decline of anthology series, backdoor pilots have increasingly been seen as episodes of existing series, one-off television films, and miniseries. As backdoor pilots have either failed to sell or are awaiting audience reception from its one-time broadcast, networks will not advertise them as pilots, only promoting them as a "special" or "movie". It is thus often unclear to initial viewers of backdoor pilots that they are seeing a pilot of any kind, unless they have been privy to knowledgeable media coverage of the piece.
While, as listed above, there are many telemovies or episodes within series intended as pilots, there are often telemovies or episodes within other series which are so popular that they inspire later television series. Popular examples are South Park, which began as a duo of shorts its creators made at college, and Family Guy, which began life as a short, titled The Life of Larry. A two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man introduced the character of Jaime Sommers who, despite dying in the story, was popular enough to narratively return to life and a spinoff series, The Bionic Woman, was commissioned. The 2006 Doctor Who episode School Reunion was intended as a one-off reunion appearance by Sarah Jane Smith, but ended up leading to a spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures.
A put pilot is a pilot that the network has agreed to air. If the network does not air the pilot episode, the network will owe substantial monetary penalties to the studio. Generally, this guarantees that the pilot will be picked up by the network.
Unsold television pilots are pilots developed by a company that is unable to sell it to a network for showing.
In a 10/90 production model, a network broadcasts ten episodes of a new television program without ordering a pilot first. If the episodes achieve a predetermined ratings level, the network orders 90 more to bring the total to 100 episodes, immediately enough to rerun the show in syndication. Among the series to have used the 10/90 model include Tyler Perry's House of Payne and Meet the Browns, Debmar-Mercury's Anger Management and Are We There Yet?, and Entertainment Studios' Mr. Box Office and The First Family.
As distinguished from "first episode"
A pilot episode is generally the first episode of a new show, shown to the heads of the studio to whom it is marketed.
The television industry uses the term differently from most viewers. Viewers frequently consider the first episode available for their viewing to be the pilot. They therefore assume that the first episode broadcast is also the episode that sold the series to the network. However, this is not always true, in part because of the factors mentioned above. For instance, the episode "Invasion of the Bane" was not a pilot for The Sarah Jane Adventures because the BBC had committed to the first season before seeing any filmed content – yet it is routinely referred to as a pilot.
Sometimes, too, viewers will assign the word "pilot" to a work that represented the first appearances of characters and situations later employed by a series – even if the work was not initially intended as a pilot for the series. A good example of this is "Love and the Television Set" (later retitled "Love and the Happy Days" for syndication), an episode of Love, American Style which featured a version of the Cunningham family. It was in fact a failed pilot for the proposed 1972 series New Family in Town, not a successful pilot for 1974's Happy Days. So firmly embedded is the notion of it as a Happy Days pilot, however, that even series actress Erin Moran views it as such, as well as its creator, Garry Marshall.
On other occasions, the pilot is never broadcast on television at all. Viewers of Temple Houston, for example, would likely have considered "The Twisted Rope" its pilot because "The Man from Galveston" was only publicly exhibited in cinemas four months later. Even then, "The Man from Galveston" had an almost entirely different cast, and its main character was renamed to avoid confusion with the then-ongoing series.
List of highest rated television pilots which garnered more 30 million or more viewers in America:
- Undercover Boss: 38.7 million viewers/19.1 rating (2010)
- lead in: Super Bowl Post Game – 75.5 million viewers/33 rating
- The Last Precinct: 39.729 million viewers (January 26, 1986)
- A Different World: 35 million viewers/31.3 rating (September 24, 1987)
- Veronica's Closet: 35.07 million viewers/23.3 rating (1997)
- Twin Peaks: 34.6 million viewers/21.7 rating (two hours; April 8, 1990)
- Brothers and Sisters: 31.722 million viewers (January 21, 1979)
- Roseanne: 30.8 million viewers/23.7 rating (1988)
- Grand Slam: 30.765 million viewers (January 28, 1990)
- Chicken Soup: 30.2 million viewers/21.8 rating (September 12, 1989)
- Suddenly Susan: 30.1 million viewers/20.4 rating (1996)
- Caroline in the City: 30 million viewers/20.5 rating (1995)
- Delta: 30 million viewers/20.5 rating (September 15, 1992)
- Dear John: 30 million viewers/19.8 rating (October 6, 1988)
- Frasier: 30 million viewers/19.3 rating (September 16, 1993)
- Variety defines "busted pilot"
- Plot programs at The Museum of Broadcast Communications
- Chozick, Amy (2011-05-12). "The Math of a Hit TV Show". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
- Nocutt, Tamara-Lee. "A Survival Guide to Pilot Season". Backstage. Retrieved 2 February 2011.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth (1994-04-06). "Finding the Absolutely Perfect Actor: The High-Stress Business of Casting". The New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
- Lotz, Amanda D. (2007) The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York, NY: New York University Press. p. 103-104
- Kim, Albert (July 8, 1994). "Pulp Nonfiction". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved December 6, 2008.
- Smith, Evan; "Creating a Series Pilot—Newcomers Welcome", Journal of Film and Video, vol. 65, no. 1 (2013): 56-61 Project Muse (accessed March 28, 2013)
- Backdoor pilot as defined by Variety
- Alex Epstein on Backdoor Pilots
- Andreeva, Nellie (September 1, 2010). "‘Army Wives’ Spinoff Gets Green Light for Embedded Pilot & Taps Gabrielle Union". Deadline.com. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
- Writers: Zimmerman, Bruce; Mitchell, T. D.; Director: Liddi-Brown, Alison (August 15, 2010). "Murder in Charleston". Army Wives. Season 4. Episode 17. Lifetime.
- Andreeva, Nellie (September 1, 2010). "CABLE NOTES: ‘Memphis Beat’ Looks Good for Renewal, ‘Army Wives’ Spinoff A No-Go, ‘Facing Kate’ Order Trimmed". Deadline.com. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
- Weisman, Jon (July 5, 2012). "Greg Daniels and the Future of 'The Office'". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved July 12, 2012.
- Bricker, Tierney (October 30, 2012). "Rainn Wilson's Office Spinoff, The Farm, Not Picked Up by NBC". E! Online. Retrieved October 30, 2012.
- Roots, Kimberly (December 26, 2012). "The Office Boss: Retooled Spin-Off Episode Will Still Air – and Change Up the Dwangela Plan". TVLine. Retrieved December 26, 2012.
- "Tonight’s special guests? The cast of a whole new show!: 21 TV episodes that tried and failed to spawn spin-offs", from The AV Club
- "Put pilot" as defined by Variety.
- Rose, Lacey (2013-01-16). "TV's $200 Million Charlie Sheen Experiment". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2 October 2013.
- Cook, Benjamin. "Doing it for the Kids". Doctor Who Magazine (378) p. 37.
- Criswell, Casey. "TV Review: The Sarah Jane Adventures". Blog Critics Magazine. 8 January 2007.
- Various reviews of Invasion of the Bane at Behind the Sofa
- "Love and the Happy Days" at sitcomsonline.com
- Pop Culture Addict interview with Erin Moran.