A television pilot is 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 start of larger activity. 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 succeed to the series stage, although the figure may be even lower.
As distinguished from "first episode"
The television industry uses the term differently from most viewers. Viewers frequently consider the pilot to be the first episode available for their consumption. They therefore assume that the first episode broadcast is also the episode that sold the series to the network. 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 Happy Days", 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 actor 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 completely different cast, and its main character was renamed to avoid confusion with the then-ongoing series.
Types of pilot
Pilots are expensive to produce. Before a network commits to funding an entire pilot episode, it often requests a pilot presentation, a one-day shoot that, when edited together, gives a general idea of the look and feel of the proposed show. Some pilots can be just a few minutes long (e.g: 10 minutes or less); however, such pilots will not be shown on the air unless more material is subsequently added to them to make them at least twenty-two minutes in length, the actual duration of a nominally "thirty minute" program (taking into account commercials). 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 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 original title of the pilot was Nothing But the Truth and the show was hosted by Mike Wallace. The program host was changed to Bud Collyer, and the title changed.
Pilots usually run as the first episode of the series, unless the series ended up being so different from the pilot that it wouldn't make sense (in this case the pilot (or portions of it) is often re-shot 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. The series began with the second produced episode, with the characters already on the island. The story from the pilot was largely reworked into a flashback episode which aired later, although with several key scenes re-shot. Even the theme song, which was originally done as a calypso number was rewritten to be completely different.
There have been exceptions to this rule when a network or a producer has chosen to run the pilot at a later date. Series for which this has happened include the first Star Trek series, where the second, modified pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") was aired as the third episode, and footage from the original pilot ("The Cage") was edited into newer footage to produce the two-part episode "The Menagerie". (However, at the time it was common for a series' episodes to be shown out of the order in which they were produced.) Previously many unsuccessful pilots were shown as episodes of anthology series that were popular in the 50's and early 60's. The more recent television show Firefly set a particularly curious example, where the series was officially canceled before the pilot aired as the final televised episode. Critics of the Firefly move complained that the networks decision to air the series out of sequence made it difficult for audiences to understand what was going on; when the series was subsequently released on DVD, the episodes were listed in Joss Whedon's intended order, with the two hour pilot as the first episode.
Unsuccessful pilots were often previously broadcast as episodes of an anthology series, for example Seven Against the Sea was a one hour war drama that became the half hour situation comedy McHale's Navy. Occasionally pilots that fail to launch a series are nonetheless broadcast as TV-movies, shown outside the United States as a feature film (To Trap a Spy the 1963 The Man From U.N.C.L.E. pilot), or as specials, usually as filler or as attempts by networks to recoup some of their investment in the production. Examples include the one-hour 1982 pilot for a never-produced Modesty Blaise series, and a 1986 pilot for The Saint in Manhattan, which had failed to launch a new series of Simon Templar adventures for television. Presumably, strong ratings for such broadcasts are capable of changing the network's mind, but this rarely occurs. On some occasions, a pilot film for a televised series will air separately long after the series itself has been cancelled. Such was the case with the pilot film for A Man Called Sloane, which featured a different actor in the title role. After it was not picked up for the 2006 fall season, the Aquaman pilot became available on the iTunes Store. A few cable networks, such as the now defunct Trio, showed various pilots (and even episodes) of failed or canceled television series.
The pilot episode of The A-Team features a different actor (Tim Dunigan) in the role of Face, the part that Dirk Benedict would become well known for in the following series. In fact, creators Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo had wanted Benedict from the beginning, after seeing him as Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but network executives insisted on a different actor in the role. Upon completion of the pilot (given the title 'Mexican Slayride' in syndication), they changed their minds, feeling that Dunigan wasn't right for the part, and the role was given to Benedict after all.
In addition to the occasional occurrence of a different actor or actress playing a lead character, the main set may be different — sometimes substantially — than the one used during the rest of the series. For instance, on The Cosby Show, the Huxtables' living and dining rooms in the pilot episode are different from the ones used in subsequent episodes. This is also the case with the first official episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was filmed several months before the rest of the series.
The television show Even Stevens had a unique way of airing its pilot. The original pilot was made two years before the show was picked up so the actors looked younger than they did when the series eventually aired. Taking advantage of this, Even Stevens' tenth episode used the pilot as a flashback for when the characters were much younger. Newer footage was mixed in to show the main characters daydreaming about the events in the pilot while being trapped on a Ferris wheel. The pilot originally contained inconsistencies too, such as the Stevens' last name being the Spiffys. Because of this, some dialogue was overdubbed before it aired.
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 retrofitted onto a future episode of the resulting series.
Some series sold using demos:
A backdoor pilot is a "pilot episode filmed as a standalone movie so it can be broadcast 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 "proof of concept for the show, that's made to see if the series is worth bankrolling".
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 movies, and mini-series. As backdoor pilots have either failed to sell or are pending the outcome of the broadcast, networks will not advertise them as pilots. It is thus often unclear to initial viewers of backdoor pilots that they're seeing a pilot of any kind, unless they have been privy to knowledgeable media coverage of the piece.
Mini-series or movie pilots
- The two hour pilot episode of the ABC series Lost was originally intended as a mini-series, but ABC/Disney executives, with the exception of Michael Eisner, loved the pilot so much that Lost debuted as a full series.
- The ABC mini-series Dinotopia was turned into a short-lived series.
- The 4400 on USA Network was initially broadcast as a miniseries, and was later picked up as a full series on the same network.
- The reimagined Battlestar Galactica was initially broadcast as a miniseries on the Sci Fi Channel, and enormous popularity caused it to be picked up by the network.
- The Cartoon Network series Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and Samurai Jack debuted as television movies and were later picked up as series.
- The Doctor Who telemovie was to serve as a backdoor pilot for a new series with the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann. The series was not picked up, but the series was later revived in 2005 by BBC Wales. Prior to that, McGann would reprise his role for a series of Big Finish audio adventures licensed by the BBC.
- The 2008 Knight Rider movie served as a backdoor pilot for NBC's reprisal of the 1982-86 original TV series, which was picked up and debuted on September 24, 2008.
Pilots within other series
- All in the Family served as backdoor pilots to three different shows.
- The first was for Maude in which Archie & Edith are invited to Maude's daughter's wedding only to be ruined by Archie calling the cops on the bachelor party.
- A second backdoor pilot was done for The Jeffersons where the Jeffersons move out of Queens and into a new condo in Manhattan.
- The third backdoor pilot was done when the show became Archie Bunker's Place and served as the launching board for the show Gloria.
- Happy Days also served as backdoor pilot to three different shows.
- The first launched the successful series Laverne and Shirley in 1976 after the airing of the shows where the characters were dates with Ritchie and Fonzie.
- The second was created for the 1978-1982 series Mork and Mindy. The character of Mork first appeared in the season-five episode "My Favorite Orkan" and returned in later episodes.
- The third was for the 1982-1983 short-lived series Joanie Loves Chachi
- The Andy Griffith Show: In May 1964, on the season-four finale, Andy's friend, Gomer Pyle, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in a backdoor pilot for Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Also, in May 1968, the series finale was actually a backdoor pilot for Mayberry R.F.D.
- The Twilight Zone itself was a development from a backdoor pilot ("The Time Element") written for Playhouse 90 but finally airing as an installment of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse: the cover page of the shooting script refers to "The Twilight Zone". The airing of a second, more conventional, pilot episode ("Where Is Everybody?") followed 11 months later and served as the first official episode of the legendary series.
- The military investigative drama NCIS began as a two-part episode of JAG.
- CSI: New York began as an episode of CSI: Miami, which itself began as an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Both spin-off series featured crimes being investigated by the CSI units from both cities/series.
- Top of the Heap, a short-lived television series starring future Friends cast member Matt LeBlanc, began as an episode of Married...With Children.
- The pilot episode of Private Practice (a spin off from Grey's Anatomy) was first shown on May 3, 2007, in a special two hour episode of the main show.
- Boston Legal, a spin off from The Practice, was introduced through a six-episode story arc that saw James Spader's character being fired and the collapse of the firm from The Practice.
- An episode of the The Cosby Show also served as a pilot for the spin-off series A Different World
- The popular show Xena: Warrior Princess had its starting premises on two episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (first season's "The Warrior Princess" and "The Gauntlet"). The two shows would also frequently share characters (Ares, Joxer, Autolycus, Callisto, Salmoneus, etc.) and have intertwining plots.
- An episode of The Golden Girls served as a backdoor pilot to the series Empty Nest (although the pilot had undergone a number of changes before the series aired).
- A late episode of The Rockford Files depicted other private investigators Lance (Tom Selleck of later Magnum P.I. fame) and a young Richie Brockelmann. The latter had a brief spin-off series Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, which only lasted a few episodes.Retooled ideas
- An episode from February 1960 of The Danny Thomas Show served as a backdoor pilot for The Andy Griffith Show. In the episode, Danny Thomas' character is arrested by Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) of Mayberry, North Carolina for running a stop sign. The Andy Griffith Show was retooled from this episode and debuted on October 3, 1960.
- Magnum, P.I.: After playing the very similar character of pilot Grady Dancer in two episodes of Magnum co-creator Donald P. Bellisario's 1982-3 series Tales of the Gold Monkey, William Lucking was introduced as ace pilot Sam Hunter, a treasure hunter like Grady. Again a series wasn't picked up (although Bellisario went on to rework the 'adventures of an ace pilot' concept in Airwolf).
- Robin Williams appeared as "Mork" on the series Happy Days. His overnight success led to his own series, Mork and Mindy.
- An episode of Diff'rent Strokes featured a woman who taught a class of immigrants a course on English. The show was never picked up, however this premise for a series was used in the 1986-87 syndicated sitcom What a Country.Unused pilots
- In 1976, the character of Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas) had become so popular in Starsky & Hutch that producers considered giving him a spin-off. The second season episode "Huggy Bear and the Turkey" (which would have been the name of the proposed series) saw Huggy paired with former Sheriff "Turkey" Turquet (Dale Robinette) as Private Investigators. The idea flopped and the series was never made.
- Two second season (1979) episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard, "Jude Emery" and "Mason Dixon's Girls", served as backdoor pilots for would-be series. The former concerns a Texas Ranger, and the latter is about a traveling Private Investigator and his beautiful assistants; both were written by Dukes creator Gy Waldron in hope of launching new shows, but neither episode led to a series being commissioned.
- Magnum, P.I.:
- The first season (1981) episode titled "J. Digger Doyle" presented the character of security expert Joy "Digger" Doyle (Erin Gray) of the episode title, in hope of launching her own series, but the idea didn't follow through.
- The third season (1983) episode "Two Birds of a Feather" again served as a potential pilot for a new show.
- The feature-length (later airing in two parts in syndication) second season (1984) Knight Rider story "Mouth of the Snake" (a.k.a. "All That Glitters") introduced Charles Taylor as bionically enhanced David Dalton (the story is notable for little inclusion of series leads Michael Knight and K.I.T.T., or few other series regulars or locations). On this occasion, the concept actually was picked up, leading to several TV movies featuring Dalton in 1986; However they were not successful and a full series did not appear.
- The first two seasons of the original Twilight Zone had several instances of backdoor pilots, none of which were successful in establishing a new series. Two episodes of the series were intended as backdoor pilots, both (possibly) coincidentally about guardian angels. One was called "Mr. Bevis," which starred Orson Bean as a down-on-his-luck man; the other was called "Cavender Is Coming," which starred Carol Burnett as a down-on-her-luck woman and Jesse White as her angel. Neither were picked up, and neither were particularly well-received by Twilight Zone fans. Producer Buck Houghton has expressed particular disappointment with "Mr. Bevis."
- Star Trek provides a famous example of the latter "backdoor pilot"-type with the episode "Assignment: Earth" where the crew of the Enterprise encounters Gary Seven, an Earth-man raised and trained by an advanced and unknown alien race to oversee and protect Earth in a story that was intended to introduce the character and other supporting characters and their adventures in a proposed spin-off series. It failed to become a series, however.
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Disaster" featured isolated groups of the primary and supporting cast in semi-standalone stories throughout the ship. One of these, featuring Chief O'Brien and Ensign Ro, was intended to test the characters' chemistry and ability to hold audience interest, in preparation for the planned series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Colm Meaney went on to reprise his role as O'Brien as a main character on DS9, but Michelle Forbes (Ensign Ro) did not sign on for the series; the DS9 character was rewritten as Major Kira, played by Nana Visitor.
- Sabrina, the Teenage Witch: a backdoor pilot featuring a witch and her two daughters (also witches, played by Sabrina actress Melissa Joan Hart's real life sisters) fell in love with a mortal man with two sons. The show was never picked up.
- In the first season of The Cosby Show, the Huxtable family spent the weekend at a youth center run by a young Hispanic man played by Tony Orlando and his girlfriend/wife. This show was never picked up.
- On the Disney Channel series That's So Raven, a backdoor pilot featuring a young girl who acted on a fictional show about the 1950s called "Better Days" was shown. The series would have followed the girl's attempts to balance her acting career with her normal life as a middle schooler. The series was not picked up, but it did inspire the Disney show Hannah Montana
- The Fairly Oddparents had a backdoor pilot which starred Timmy Turner's television hero, Crash Nebula in 2004. The series was never picked up.
- The Brady Bunch also had a backdoor pilot called "Kelly's Kids" in which Ken Berry played a friend of the Bradys as he and his wife adopted not only a white orphan but also his black and Asian best friends as well, much to his bigoted neighbor's chagrin. This pilot was not picked up either, although it was reworked into the 1986 show Together We Stand.
- Episode 47 (2nd season) of The Nanny, entitled "The Chatterbox," was an unsuccessful backdoor pilot for a show based in a hair salon, starring Tracy Nelson.
- In the 2007 series Chowder, the episode "Froggy Apple Crumple Thumpkin" characters had different looks and voices, mostly Shnitzel, being voice by Kevin Michael Richardson, and Chowder was thin, mung had real big ears, and truffles did not have a movable material.
Pilots within anthology series
Television shows that spun off from anthology series
usually started as a one-episode story but showed potential for a series.
In some cases, a series is created specifically to showcase pilots.
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 TV series. A popular example is The Simpsons
, which started as a set of shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show
. Another example is South Park
, which started as a cartoon with an extremely low budget which was created for a class at the University of Colorado, which the creators Trey Parker
and Matt Stone
were attending at the time.
Another use is the Larry shorts by Seth MacFarlane for Family Guy prototypes which made Larry go to Peter Griffin and Steve go to Brian Griffin. Only with his first cartoon from his Rhode Island college called, Life with Larry which is made in 1995 and another called, Larry & Steve in which, this is the cartoon where Seth worked for Hanna-Barbera after graduation in 1996 produced for Cartoon Network part of the What a Cartoon! show.
A put pilot is an agreement between a network and a studio, where the network will incur substantial penalties if the pilot episode is not aired. This is a virtual guarantee that a pilot will be picked up.
Unsold television pilots are pilots developed by a company that is unable to sell it to a network for showing.
In American television
, pilots are generally sought at a specific time of year, called "pilot season". A phenomenon of the shape of the traditional broadcast season, pilot season occurs between mid-March and early May. During this time, the networks must decide what should go on the fall schedule. The networks look at the large pool of pilots, and then decide which ones they will keep for series. These are announced as part of the fall schedule or as mid-season replacements. Sometimes during pilot season it is not unusual for a pilot to be shopped to another network after it has been rejected.
To put it simply, a pilot episode is the first episode of a series.