TV shows are introduced to audiences and tested for their viability in a variety of ways. Think of a TV pilot as the first page of a screenplay. If it ain’t good, nobody wants to read any further.
TV pilots are not always filmed as part of the entire TV series, although that is the initial intent. They may be reconceived or reworked to tie into the rest of the series if the nature of the show is changes.
TV pilots set the world of a TV show. If the series is substantially recast, or the timeline is changed, the pilot may need to be reshot.
It’s important to note that a PILOT isn’t always the FIRST EPISODE of a TV series. The former is a marketing tool and the latter introduces the TV series.
Not all TV shows go through a TV pilot process. Let’s examine a few of the business models
STRAIGHT TO SERIES
This is the financial risk that TV streaming. subscription services take. They don’t film a TV pilot and test it on audiences. They produce the entire TV series instead.
In order to offset their investment risk, entire TV series remain on their platforms indefinitely to gain viewers over time. These platforms measure metrics like who watched a TV show, was the entire episode viewed, if not, how many minutes were watched. and how many future episodes were viewed. If these metrics don’t meet minimum expectations, they may be removed from the platform.
CABLE TV PILOTS
The entire season of a new TV series is generally shot both cable TV platforms. Networks broadcast the TV pilot each week (or other timeframe) and add timeshifts viewing times (say +1 to +24 hours) to attract repeat and additional viewers.
Afterwards, they are added to their ‘on demand’ services for delayed, binge, and catch-up viewing. TV shows are given maximum exposure and the greatest chance of reaching their full viewing potential.
After analyzing the viewing metrics, TV producers decide whether an additional series will be produced.
NETWORK TV PILOTS
Network TV show carry the highest financial investment risk with advertisers and therefore are more cautious about testing the viablity of new TV series. The main difference is that the entire season (particularly full season TV shows comprising 26 episodes) may not necessarily be shot.
In fact, many TV shows produce a pilot as a seperate standalone event to assess the viability of a concept. These TV pilots, which are not formatted like the remainder of the series, serve two purposes; to sell the concept to a TV network, and, once sold, to hook the audience into watching the rest of the series, comprising shorter episodes.
If a TV pilot rates poorly, the entire series may be cancelled before the remaining unproduced epiosdes are produced. If ratings are really low, networks may not even air the episodes alrady filmed.
I’ll further breakdown some of the network TV models below:
– DEMO PILOT
Of the 500 or so pitches to TV networks during pilot season, only about 15-20 actually get produced. If a network sees potential in a TV show concept, they may order a PROOF OF CONCEPT or PRESENTATION cut. Often these are extended trailers that are under 10 minutes long. If a network sees further potential in a TV show, they may request additional material to be shot to expand the pilot into either a 30 or 60 minute TV show to mimic the look and feel of a full episode minus the production costs.
These demos may not have the complete narrative structure of a full episode, but can look more like extended proofs of concept.
They are generally shown to network executives and test audiences only.
– BROADCAST PILOT
As mentioned earlier, if a TV show is reconceived, an additional pilot may need to be refilmed. This could be due to recasting, changing characters, changes in creative direction, or altering the mood, tone and feel of the TV series. Think of it as the second draft of your screenplay.
– EXTENDED PILOT
These are longer than usual episodes designed to hook an audience. They can be telemovies, one and a half or double episodes to hook and establish an audience. A movie length episode may sometimes be filmed to recoup a larger proportion of a TV show’s production costs even if the show ultimatley doesn’t go to full series.
– SPINOFF PILOT
One way for TV producers to boost the chances of a ratings success is to create a spinoff series of a successful TV series, Since the characters have already been established, the producers will air or strategically advertise a BACK-DOOR PILOT during or around the TV show.
– CONSEQUENTIAL PILOT
These are sometimes called lucky accidents. A short, insert, web series or an otherwise intended format is successful enough to warrant a TV series order. Sometimes, produced shows like a single event show or mini-series will be extended beyond its intended run due to audiene demand.
– CONDITIONAL PILOT
This is a situation where only the pilot (or a small proportion of the TV series episodes, typically 10%) are filmed initially. The entire package is generally screened. If ratings targets are met, then the rest of the TV series is filmed.