What Is the Job of a Pilot Episode?

What Is the Job of a Pilot Episode?

Every TV show, whether a sitcom or a procedural, begins with a pilot episode. Learn how pilots can make or break a show and how their names came to be.


What Is a Pilot Episode?

A television pilot episode is a stand-alone episode of a television series that is used to sell the proof of concept of a new show to television network executives in the hopes of receiving approval to produce an entire series.

During pilot season, which lasts from January to April in Hollywood, networks create TV pilots. During this time, network executives decide which pilots will receive a full series order; the remaining pilots remain unsold. With streaming services like Netflix producing pilot episodes all year, the traditional pilot season only applies to major television networks like NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS.


Why is the first episode referred to as a pilot?

The term "pilot" is derived from the scientific community, where researchers conduct "pilot studies" to demonstrate the efficacy of a larger-scale (and more expensive) research project. Similarly, an original pilot serves as a trial run for television networks, assisting them in determining whether to invest in the "pick up" of the rest of the series, which requires a larger financial commitment than a single television episode.

If the pilot episode is a success, the show's creators can use it as the first episode of the series or, in some cases, as a later episode, lowering the cost of the new series.


What Does a Pilot Episode Do?

The pilot episode of a potential series must accomplish several goals, some of which are related to production and others to the viewing audience's experience of the story. Among these jobs are:

1. Introducing yourself to the world: In terms of screenwriting, the pilot episode must introduce the viewer to the world, main characters, setting, and themes. In many ways, the pilot episode serves as a blueprint for the rest of the series, posing questions and establishing situations that will develop as the show progresses.

2. Serve as a trial run for a full series: The pilot episode allows the network to determine whether the show will be financially viable and is frequently used as the first episode of a series.

3. Function as a backdoor pilot: When showrunners and producers want to center a storyline on supporting characters in the hopes of creating a spinoff, they create a backdoor pilot. The success of these pilots demonstrates to the network that the supporting characters can carry a television series independent of the main show.


7 Notable TV Show Pilots

Some pilot episodes stand out among the thousands of shows produced since the invention of television:

1. Game of Thrones: With each episode costing the network $10 million, HBO's Game of Thrones earns a place in the pilot hall of fame as the most expensive show ever made. After the first pilot failed to pique the network's interest, HBO recast the main characters and reshot the pilot.

2. Grey's Anatomy: The pilot episode of ABC's Grey's Anatomy established Shonda Rhimes as one of television's greatest storytellers. The pilot episode was watched by over 16 million people, and the show is still running after 17 years.

3. Lost: Before Game of Thrones, the ABC sci-fi show Lost had the most expensive pilot episode of all time. The network split the pilot episode into two parts, which aired a week apart and were both critically acclaimed.

4. Modern Family: Before the show aired, ABC shared the pilot episode with advertisers, which was considered a risky move in the entertainment industry, but they were confident they had a hit. Their bet paid off, as Modern Family won a slew of Emmys and aired for 11 seasons.

5. Star Trek: Because the original Star Trek pilot lacked action, NBC scrapped it and reshot a new version. They also recast Captain Kirk in the second version of the pilot, cementing William Shatner's reputation as the crew's leader.

6. Twin Peaks: The pilot episode of ABC's Twin Peaks was originally two hours long, and the network intended to release it as a feature film if the TV show failed. Twin Peaks was a groundbreaking show thanks to David Lynch's unique storytelling approach, and it went on to become one of the most celebrated and award-winning shows in television history. Discover David's creative process.

7. The West Wing: Aaron Sorkin's pilot episode of NBC's The West Wing launched one of television's most successful shows of all time. Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy, advises aspiring TV writers to dissect a show they enjoy before writing their pilot. "I did The West Wing for myself," she says. "I'm a huge fan of The West Wing." The show was created by Sorkin using unused plot elements from his film The American President.


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