Question: What exactly is a pilot episode? Are the first episode of a show and a pilot the same thing? There's a small wager involved between my brother and me. He says that for some shows a pilot and first episode are separate entities, but I say they are the same thing. Who's right? Thanks Daniel S.
Televisionary: Though the networks and studios would love for you to be right on this one (since it would be cheaper), Daniel, your brother wins the bet.
Here's how it works: Studios and producers pitch a slew of ideas to a network. If a network likes an idea enough, it goes to script and then to pilot, moving through the development process the whole time (notes, feedback, casting suggestions, etc.). The studio and network each pay for a share of the pilot, which serves as a sample episode of what the series will be.
The pilot is often tested in front of an audience and, based on that and other factors, the network decides how many episodes to order, if any sometimes the potential show dies right there. (One complaint from studios and producers alike is that these days networks tend to favor series from sister companies an outfit like Disney-owned ABC prefers shows from the Disney and Touchstone TV units, goes the theory but network execs insist that's not the case, of course.)
If it doesn't go to series, the pilot becomes the stuff of either shame or legend (there are plenty of pilots that gained a following in the Hollywood community but never went beyond that for one reason or another). The network and studio are out the money they spent to have it produced and it's chalked up to the cost of doing business, the same way a car maker pays for research and development on a model that never sees the light of day.
Even if the pilot does become a series, there are plenty of examples of long-running show pilots that were never aired. The long-lost Gilligan's Island pilot, for example, features different actors as Ginger and The Professor and there was a Bunny instead of a Mary Ann. The pilot for The King of Queens featured Jack Carter as Doug's father-in-law, now played by Jerry Stiller, and footage from the original Star Trek pilot, which boasted a captain other than Kirk and a decidedly more emotional Spock, showed up in a two-part Trek story (the details of which I bored you all with late last year).
But while I'm going on about this, there's also something known as a "back-door" pilot. A network, for example, may order up a two-hour effort and see how it comes out. If it's good, it's the first episode of a series. If not, they may burn it off as a TV-movie. (A current example is TNT's The Big Time, a two-hour back-door pilot from ER and The West Wing producer John Wells, which will focus on late-'40s Manhattan and the beginnings of the TV industry.)
Years ago, networks would try pilots as episodes of anthology shows like Police Story or The NBC Mystery Movie first and then go to series if the audience responded. These days, unwanted pilots usually end up on a shelf somewhere.
It's not unusual for TV writers and critics to receive pilot tapes of new series with notes attached asking them to keep in mind that, say, the sister or the love interest has already been recast and will not be played by the person they're watching. Or if a new series has enough problems, the pilot sent out may be broadcast later in the season, and maybe not at all. (The out-of-order trick is easier to pull off with sitcoms, which don't depend on chronology the way many dramas do.)
Strange business, no?