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What is a TV Pilot?

A TV pilot is the first episode of a series, crafted as a standalone story to showcase a show's potential. It introduces characters, sets the tone, and hooks viewers, serving as a testbed for networks to gauge interest. Have you ever wondered how your favorite shows began? Discover the journey from pilot to series in our next segment.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A TV pilot is a scripted and filmed “first episode” of an intended series. It is usually used to test the waters of whether or not an idea for a TV show is viable and marketable. Often a pilot will never air because no network shows interest in the project. Sometimes one network will produce a pilot, and another network will “pick up” the show and air it, because the original producing network is not interested in it.

There is significant competition for actually getting airtime for a series. Generally a network gives the go-ahead to writers and producers, and will fund production of a TV pilot. Occasionally, a pilot is produced by non-network individuals and is then farmed out to networks to see if interest exists.

TV pilots are shown to test audiences  before a network commits to producing the series.
TV pilots are shown to test audiences before a network commits to producing the series.

If a network expresses interest in the TV pilot, they may use test audiences to see how likely the pilot is to be appreciated, before committing to producing a series. If a test audience responds favorably to the pilot, then the network may choose to make a series, which expands on the premise of the pilot.

Occasionally a TV pilot is kept on the back burner for a while as networks scramble to produce programming that is popular. This can have some interesting results, for example, changes in cast, directors or writers. Most notable are pilots that air and then change something significant, like a cast member, in future episodes. For example, The Waltons first cast Patricia Neal as the mother. Episodes after the pilot cast Michael Learned as Mama.

A TV pilot is usually noted for being much longer than regular series episodes.
A TV pilot is usually noted for being much longer than regular series episodes.

Sometimes a TV pilot becomes a jumping off point for changing things about a potential series. In the first episode of The Cosby Show, the Huxtables had four children, not five. The oldest child Sondra did not get introduced onto the show until well into the first season.

A TV pilot is usually noted for being much longer than regular series episodes. Some pilots for dramas may be two hours long. A typical comedy pilot may run for an hour. The longer treatment of the subject allows for the network to conclude whether the show may have merit. Networks are not always right, however.

The TV pilot is scripted and filmed as the first episode of an intended series.
The TV pilot is scripted and filmed as the first episode of an intended series.

Some TV pilots are instead called backdoor pilots. They can be, for example, a miniseries, that proves so popular it is turned into a series, as in the case of The 4400. Other times a popular show will introduce characters that might later have their own series if reaction to them is favorable.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a TV pilot?

A TV pilot is the first episode of a show that is produced to showcase the concept, characters, and style of the series to networks and streaming platforms. It serves as a test to determine if the show has the potential to be successful and is often used to sell the show to networks. If the pilot is well-received, it can lead to the commissioning of a full series.

How important is a pilot episode for a new TV series?

The pilot episode is crucial for a new TV series as it sets the tone and introduces the main characters and storylines. It's the first impression that can make or break a show's chance of being picked up by a network. According to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, a strong pilot can significantly increase the likelihood of a show's success and longevity.

What are the typical costs involved in making a TV pilot?

The cost of making a TV pilot can vary widely depending on the genre, cast, and production values. For example, a high-concept science fiction show with special effects may cost more than a simple sitcom. According to Variety, a network drama pilot can cost anywhere from $3 million to $6 million, while a high-end pilot can cost upwards of $10 million to produce.

How does a pilot episode differ from other episodes in a series?

A pilot episode often differs from subsequent episodes in that it is primarily focused on establishing the world of the show and introducing characters. It may have a different pace or style as it aims to hook viewers and executives. Additionally, pilots sometimes feature different actors or changes in the show's direction based on feedback received after its initial screening.

What happens after a TV pilot is produced?

After a TV pilot is produced, it is screened for network executives or test audiences to gauge its potential. Based on the reception, a network may order a full season, request changes, or decide not to move forward with the series. If picked up, the pilot may undergo reshoots or re-edits before it airs as part of the series' official run.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent WiseTour contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent WiseTour contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon68203

If it's original enough, copyrighting the name of the pilot might be a wise move.

But, if you've written a draft of the pilot script, then you could just register the script with the WGA, and that would simultaneously protect the copyright of the idea, characters, story, and the title itself. Hope that helps.

anon17901

I have written a pilot for television. Do I have to get the name of the pilot copywrited?

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    • TV pilots are shown to test audiences  before a network commits to producing the series.
      By: Scott Griessel
      TV pilots are shown to test audiences before a network commits to producing the series.
    • A TV pilot is usually noted for being much longer than regular series episodes.
      By: Alena Ozerova
      A TV pilot is usually noted for being much longer than regular series episodes.
    • The TV pilot is scripted and filmed as the first episode of an intended series.
      By: DeshaCAM
      The TV pilot is scripted and filmed as the first episode of an intended series.