Television pilot
A "television pilot" is a standalone episode
An episode is a part of a dramatic work such as a serial television or radio program. An episode is a part of a sequence of a body of work, akin to a chapter of a book. The term sometimes applies to works based on other forms of mass media as well, as in Star Wars...

 of a television series that is used to sell the show to a television network. At the time of its inception, the pilot is meant to be the "testing ground" to see if a series will be possibly desired and successful and therefore a test episode of an intended television series. It is an early step in the development of a television series, much like pilot light
Pilot light
thumb|right|Merker gas fired water heater from the 1930's, with pilot light clearly visible through the aperture in the front cover. The large opening allowed for the manual lighting of the pilot light by a lit match or taper...

s or pilot studies
Pilot (experiment)
A pilot experiment, also called a pilot study, is a small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, time, cost, adverse events, and effect size in an attempt to predict an appropriate sample size and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale...

 serve as precursors to the start of larger activity, or pilot hole
Pilot hole
A pilot hole is a smaller hole drilled into a material prior to a larger hole being drilled, widening the hole to the desired width. Drilling a pilot hole prevents a larger drill bit from slipping on the material - a potential safety hazard, as well as an increased likelihood of the work being...

s prepare the way for larger holes. Television network
Television network
A television network is a telecommunications network for distribution of television program content, whereby a central operation provides programming to many television stations or pay TV providers. Until the mid-1980s, television programming in most countries of the world was dominated by a small...

s 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 prototype
A prototype is an early sample or model built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from.The word prototype derives from the Greek πρωτότυπον , "primitive form", neutral of πρωτότυπος , "original, primitive", from πρῶτος , "first" and τύπος ,...

s of the show that is to follow, because elements often change from pilot to series. Variety
Variety (magazine)
Variety is an American weekly entertainment-trade magazine founded in New York City, New York, in 1905 by Sime Silverman. With the rise of the importance of the motion-picture industry, Daily Variety, a daily edition based in Los Angeles, California, was founded by Silverman in 1933. In 1998, the...

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.

Pilot season

In American television, each summer each of the four large broadcast networksABC
American Broadcasting Company
The American Broadcasting Company is an American commercial broadcasting television network. Created in 1943 from the former NBC Blue radio network, ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Company and is part of Disney-ABC Television Group. Its first broadcast on television was in 1948...

CBS Broadcasting Inc. is a major US commercial broadcasting television network, which started as a radio network. The name is derived from the initials of the network's former name, Columbia Broadcasting System. The network is sometimes referred to as the "Eye Network" in reference to the shape of...

Fox Broadcasting Company
Fox Broadcasting Company, commonly referred to as Fox Network or simply Fox , is an American commercial broadcasting television network owned by Fox Entertainment Group, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Launched on October 9, 1986, Fox was the highest-rated broadcast network in the...

, and NBC
The National Broadcasting Company is an American commercial broadcasting television network and former radio network headquartered in the GE Building in New York City's Rockefeller Center with additional major offices near Los Angeles and in Chicago...

—receives about 500 brief elevator pitch
Elevator pitch
An elevator pitch is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition...

es for new shows from writers and producers. Each network during the fall requests scripts for about 70 pitches and, in January, orders about 20 pilot episodes. Many actors from New York and abroad come to Los Angeles to be cast in pilots during spring. Depending on the ratings of its current shows each network announces orders for about four to eight new shows based on the pilots at the annual upfront
In the North American television industry, an upfront is a meeting hosted at the start of important advertising sales periods by television network executives, attended by the press and major advertisers...

s, but only one to two shows survive for more than one season.

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 pilot to be the first episode available for their viewing. They therefore assume that the first episode broadcast is also the episode that sold the series to the network. This is not always true. For instance, the episode "Invasion of the Bane
Invasion of the Bane
-Sladen and Doctor Who:Elisabeth Sladen, who previously played Sarah Jane between 1973 and 1976. In 1981, she was offered the role again to ease the transition between the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, which she declined, but agreed to star in the pilot for the spin-off series K-9 and Company, which...

" was not a pilot for The Sarah Jane Adventures
The Sarah Jane Adventures
The Sarah Jane Adventures is a British science fiction television series, produced by BBC Cymru Wales for CBBC, created by Russell T Davies and starring Elisabeth Sladen...

because the BBC
The British Broadcasting Corporation is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters is at Broadcasting House in the City of Westminster, London. It is the largest broadcaster in the world, with about 23,000 staff...

 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
Love, American Style
Love, American Style is an hour-long TV anthology produced by Paramount Television and originally aired between September 1969 and January 1974...

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
Happy Days
Happy Days is an American television sitcom that originally aired from January 15, 1974, to September 24, 1984, on ABC. Created by Garry Marshall, the series presents an idealized vision of life in mid-1950s to mid-1960s America....

. So firmly embedded is the notion of it as a Happy Days pilot, however, that even series actor Erin Moran
Erin Moran
Erin Marie Moran is an American actress, best known for the role of Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days and its spinoff Joanie Loves Chachi.-Early life:...

 views it as such, as well as its creator, Garry Marshall
Garry Marshall
Garry Kent Marshall is an American actor, director, writer and producer. His notable credits include creating Happy Days and The Odd Couple and directing Nothing In Common, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Valentine's Day, and The Princess Diaries.-Early life:Marshall was born in the New York City...


On other occasions, the pilot is never broadcast on television at all. Viewers of Temple Houston
Temple Houston (TV series)
Temple Houston is a 1963–64 NBC television series which has been called "the first attempt . . . to produce an hour-long Western series with the main character being an attorney in the formal sense." It was the only show Jack Webb sold to a network during his ten months as the head of production at...

, 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.


Pilots are expensive to produce and when they aren't totally sold on the idea and want to see the execution of it, a network may only order a pilot-presentation; 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 twenty-two minutes in length, the actual duration of a nominally "thirty minute" television program
Television program
A television program , also called television show, is a segment of content which is intended to be broadcast on television. It may be a one-time production or part of a periodically recurring series...

 (taking into account television 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
Star Trek: The Original Series
Star Trek is an American science fiction television series created by Gene Roddenberry, produced by Desilu Productions . Star Trek was telecast on NBC from September 8, 1966, through June 3, 1969...

and All in the Family
All in the Family
All in the Family is an American sitcom that was originally broadcast on the CBS television network from January 12, 1971, to April 8, 1979. In September 1979, a new show, Archie Bunker's Place, picked up where All in the Family had ended...

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
To Tell the Truth
To Tell the Truth is an American television panel game show created by Bob Stewart and produced by Goodson-Todman Productions that has aired in various forms since 1956 both on networks and in syndication...

in 1956. The original title of the pilot was Nothing But the Truth and the show was hosted by Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace (journalist)
Myron Leon "Mike" Wallace is an American journalist, former game show host, actor and media personality. During his 60+ year career, he has interviewed a wide range of prominent newsmakers....

. The program host was changed to Bud Collyer
Bud Collyer
Bud Collyer was an American radio actor/announcer who became one of the nation's first major television game show stars...

, 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
Gilligan's Island
Gilligan's Island is an American television series created and produced by Sherwood Schwartz and originally produced by United Artists Television. The situation comedy series featured Bob Denver; Alan Hale, Jr.; Jim Backus; Natalie Schafer; Tina Louise; Russell Johnson; and Dawn Wells. It aired for...

, 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.


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
Post-production is part of filmmaking and the video production process. It occurs in the making of motion pictures, television programs, radio programs, advertising, audio recordings, photography, and digital art...

 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:
  • Doctor Who
    Doctor Who
    Doctor Who is a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC. The programme depicts the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien known as the Doctor who explores the universe in a sentient time machine called the TARDIS that flies through time and space, whose exterior...

  • One Tree Hill
    One Tree Hill (TV series)
    One Tree Hill is an American television drama created by Mark Schwahn, which premiered on September 23, 2003, on The WB Television Network. After its third season, The WB merged with UPN to form The CW Television Network, and, since September 27, 2006, the network has been the official broadcaster...

  • Saul of the Mole Men
  • Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge
  • Charmed
    Charmed is an American television series that originally aired from October 7, 1998, until May 21, 2006, on the now defunct The WB Television Network. The series was created in 1998 by writer Constance M...

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • King of the Hill
    King of the Hill
    King of the Hill is an American animated dramedy series created by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, that ran from January 12, 1997, to May 6, 2010, on Fox network. It centers on the Hills, a working-class Methodist family in the fictional small town of Arlen, Texas...

  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
    It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
    It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an American television sitcom that premiered on FX on August 4, 2005. New episodes continue to air on FX, with reruns playing on Comedy Central, general broadcast syndication, and WGN America—the first-ever cable-to-cable syndication deal for a sitcom...

Backdoor pilots

A backdoor pilot is defined by Variety
Variety (magazine)
Variety is an American weekly entertainment-trade magazine founded in New York City, New York, in 1905 by Sime Silverman. With the rise of the importance of the motion-picture industry, Daily Variety, a daily edition based in Los Angeles, California, was founded by Silverman in 1933. In 1998, the...

as 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". This definition also includes episodes of one show introducing a spin-off
Spin-off (media)
In media, a spin-off is a radio program, television program, video game, or any narrative work, derived from one or more already existing works, that focuses, in particular, in more detail on one aspect of that original work...

. A typical unsuccessful example was the final episode of One Day at a Time
One Day at a Time
One Day at a Time is an American situation comedy on the CBS network that aired from December 16, 1975 until May 28, 1984. It portrays Ann Romano, a divorced mother, played by Bonnie Franklin, her two teenage daughters Julie and Barbara Cooper and Schneider, their building superintendent .The show...

in May 1984, which was supposed to serve as a spin-off featuring Pat Harrington, Jr.
Pat Harrington, Jr.
Pat Harrington, Jr., is an American voice, stage, and television actor most popularly known for his role as building superintendent "Schneider" on the CBS sitcom One Day At A Time. He is the son of Pat Harrington, Sr.- Biography :...

's "Dwayne Schneider" character in a new setting. The network ultimately passed on the potential series.

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 movie
Television movie
A television film is a feature film that is a television program produced for and originally distributed by a television network, in contrast to...

s, 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 are seeing a pilot of any kind, unless they have been privy to knowledgeable media coverage of the piece.

Unintentional 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. Popular examples are The Simpsons
The Simpsons
The Simpsons is an American animated sitcom created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The series is a satirical parody of a middle class American lifestyle epitomized by its family of the same name, which consists of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie...

, which started as a set of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show
The Tracey Ullman Show
The Tracey Ullman Show was an American television variety show, hosted by British comedian and onetime pop singer Tracey Ullman. It debuted on April 5, 1987 as the Fox network's second primetime series after Married... with Children, and ran until May 26, 1990. The show blended sketch comedy shorts...

, South Park
South Park
South Park is an American animated television series created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for the Comedy Central television network. Intended for mature audiences, the show has become famous for its crude language, surreal, satirical, and dark humor that lampoons a wide range of topics...

, which began as a duo of shorts
The Spirit of Christmas (short film)
The Spirit of Christmas is the name of two different animated short films made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They are notable for being precursors to the animated series South Park. To differentiate the two, they are often referred to as Jesus vs. Frosty and Jesus vs. Santa .- Jesus vs. Frosty...

 its creators made soon after meeting in film class at the University of Colorado
University of Colorado at Boulder
The University of Colorado Boulder is a public research university located in Boulder, Colorado...

 (a second was later made as a video Christmas card for Fox
Fox Broadcasting Company
Fox Broadcasting Company, commonly referred to as Fox Network or simply Fox , is an American commercial broadcasting television network owned by Fox Entertainment Group, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Launched on October 9, 1986, Fox was the highest-rated broadcast network in the...

), and Family Guy
Family Guy
Family Guy is an American animated television series created by Seth MacFarlane for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The series centers on the Griffins, a dysfunctional family consisting of parents Peter and Lois; their children Meg, Chris, and Stewie; and their anthropomorphic pet dog Brian...

, which began life as a short, entitled The Life of Larry, that Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane
Seth Woodbury MacFarlane is an American animator, writer, comedian, producer, actor, singer, voice actor, and director best known for creating the animated sitcoms Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, for which he also voices many of the shows' various characters.A native of Kent,...

 made when he was attending Rhode Island School of Design
Rhode Island School of Design
Rhode Island School of Design is a fine arts and design college located in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded in 1877. Located at the base of College Hill, the RISD campus is contiguous with the Brown University campus. The two institutions share social, academic, and community resources and...

 before he was commissioned to do a second short, titled Larry & Steve, and later adapting the idea into a series.

Put pilot

A put pilot describes a pilot where the network and studio enter into an agreement, where the network agrees to air the pilot. 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 pilot

Unsold television pilots are pilots developed by a company that is unable to sell it to a network for showing.

External links

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