Wednesday, August 06, 2014

What happens to failed pilots?

Only two more days to buy the Kindle version of my comic novel MUST KILL TV for only $0.99.  You save 90%.  It's a great way to help support this free blog and get lots of laughs for under a buck.  Here's where you go.  But hurry.  Sale ends tomorrow.  Thanks for making me a Best Seller.  I need it way more than Carl Hiaasen.  

And now today's post...

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post.

Chris asks:

I never knew what happens to a rejected pilot. Can't you pitch it the next year or a couple of years from when it got shot down? I mean, if you think the idea is good enough to write a pilot and try to make a show out of it, wouldn't you want to keep trying? Has this ever happened or do people just move on and never look back? And if so, why?

Most failed pilots just die and are never heard from again. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s networks would recoup some of their production costs by airing them in the summer. From their perspective it was original program and saved them some coin. The industry nickname for this practice was “Failure Theater.” We had a pilot that aired on NBC at 11:30 PM on Sunday night in 1980, and I bet more people saw it than watched any episode of THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW.

Sometimes networks took heat when failed pilots were perceived as way better than the dreck they actually picked up. Networks do not like being embarrassed.

You may say, well then why don’t they just go ahead and order these shows to series if they were so well received? Because when you do a pilot you have a hold on the cast for a limited period. By the time these failed pilots aired those hold period were over and the actors had already scattered to do other things.

There have been instances where failed pilots have been shopped around and land on other networks. 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN was made for ABC. They passed. NBC picked it up and it became a big hit. Networks soooo hate to be embarrassed that because of that and a few other similar examples, that there was a period in the ‘90s and early ‘00s when they would not release failed pilots. They’d rather just eat the money than see it become a hit elsewhere.

And then the economy changed. Belts were tightened, and networks realized that they hate to lose money more than they hate to be embarrassed. So they again agreed to release pilots. If another network is willing to pick up a failed pilot and compensate the production cost then God bless 'em.

Also, in today’s marketplace, networks are less willing to just junk a pilot they feel has potential. In quite a few cases lately, networks have re-developed pilots – recasting or commissioning new scripts. It seems like every year Jim Gaffigan has a pilot for CBS that almost gets on the schedule. Finally, his twice rejected CBS pilot was ordered to series by TV LAND.   BIG BANG THEORY was a do-over that finally got it right. I don’t remember the name, but one pilot that got picked up this year was a show that almost made the cut a year before.

But by far the most bizarre case of a failed pilot getting a second life is DEAR DIARY, a 1997 half-hour single camera sitcom starring Bebe Neuwirth. ABC passed, the production company (Dreamworks) released it theatrically, it made the festival circuit, and WON the Academy Award for best short film.

You sure can't call that "Failure Theater."

52 comments:

Stoney said...

I remember seeing the pilot for "Calling Doctor Storm" which starred Larry Linville. It was on NBC one night in the summer of 1977; just months after Frank Burns said "Goodbye Margaret." Larry played a civilian M.D. who was married to a cop. Talk about forgotten; no surviving video has shown up online and Wiki doesn't list it on Linville's post-M*A*S*H credits.

Rebecca said...

FYI, for some of us Must Kill TV is still showing for $2.99. Not sure why.

Mike Botula said...

Your current promotion blitz has prompted me to actually start reading the copy of "Must Kill TV" that I bought when it was first released. I'm enjoying it! And with the 99 cents that is sure to be burning a hole in everybody's pockets...Kindle's all over the world must be tanking up on this modern day comedy masterpiece. "Must Kill TV" is mmmmm mmmmm good!

Mike Botula said...

Your current promotion blitz has prompted me to actually start reading the copy of "Must Kill TV" that I bought when it was first released. I'm enjoying it! And with the 99 cents that is sure to be burning a hole in everybody's pockets...Kindle's all over the world must be tanking up on this modern day comedy masterpiece. "Must Kill TV" is mmmmm mmmmm good!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Cue William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything."

Funnily enough, I'm going through old tapes deciding what to keep, and on there is a Jim Gaffigan effort (not a failed pilot but a failed series, which I guess is a big step up) called WELCOME TO NEW YORK. Also starring Christine Baranski. It seems as though quite a few pilots get made over, though - besides TBBT (whose unaired pilot I've seen) there are (as someone here mentioned some time ago) no less than three THREE'S COMPANY pilots floating around the Internet, and also a BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER effort with a different Willow. All three benefited from the makeovers.

Which leads to a Friday question: Amazon is moving into commissioning its own streamed series, and has posted the pilots for public voting. What do you make of that as a way to eliminate some of the expense of failures?

wg

Lisa said...

There are a couple of earlier ALL IN THE FAMILY pilots, with variations in casting.

James Van Hise said...

The oddest story I ever heard about a pilot which was bought and then killed was in the British magazine FX even though it was about a US show, but has never been written about in a US magazine to my knowledge. In 2001 some producers sold a TV series to the WB Network based on the Dragonriders books. All was well until the WB suddenly lost Buffy the Vampire Slater to the UPN Network when the WB didn't want to pay the increased fee for the show that Fox wanted. The WB went to the Dragonriders producers and told them they wanted the series changed to have a powerful female lead, "like Xena" is the way they put it. The producers complained that this wasn't the show they'd sold them. Arguments went back and forth and the WB killed the Dragonriders show because the producers refused to revamp it into something the producers considered to be unrecognizable.

But the story continues. When the WB couldn't get Dragonriders changed, they went in another direction and had a new series created, about someone with superpowers who fights strange menaces in a small town (based on a property Warner Brothers already owned under the Time Warner umbrella). This time the hero was a man instead of a woman, and the show was called Smallville. Smallville premiered in the fall of 2001, just months after the WB lost Buffy. The show even outlasted the WB when it merged with UPN to become the CW network.

Carson said...

I think the show you talked about that didn't make it last year, but got picked up this year was Mulhaney - starring former SNL writer/comedian John Mulaney and Martin Short.

I watched the pilot a couple months ago and as much as I really love Mulaney's stand-up, I think this pilot was kind of awful. The comedy was very forced and there was little chemistry between the actors and Mulaney can act about as well as Jerry Seinfeld - except this show isn't as sharp, funny or original as Seinfeld.

Cpl. Clegg said...

A Friday Question:

If you became king of Hollywood, what current TV practices or policies would you immediately end and/or what new policy or practice would you start?

Ken Levine said...

Rebecca,

Are you in the US? Maybe the offer is only good in America. I'm just the author. No one ever tells me anything.

Ken Levine said...

Rebecca,

Are you in the US? Maybe the offer is only good in America. I'm just the author. No one ever tells me anything.

Lee Goldberg said...

I can't resist a plug...if Ken doesnt mind. I wrote a book long ago called "Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989" that listed every sitcom and drama pilot rejected by the networks during that time..with a summary, production credits, and in many cases, the story behind why it didn't go to series. There are thousands of entries. You can find the book in two volumes here:

http://www.amazon.com/Unsold-Television-Pilots-Volume-1955-1976/dp/059519429X/

http://www.amazon.com/Unsold-Television-Pilots-Volume-1955-1976/dp/059519429X

Silencio said...

I think the David Lynch movie Mulholland Drive started as a failed pilot also. Would love to have see that as a series week after week.

Bob O'Brien Leszczak said...

Some very famous TV shows were recast as the result of a failed but yet promising pilot. In the pilot of THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, the role of the father, Martin Lane is portrayed by actor Mark Miller, not William Schallert. In the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER pilot, Paul Sullivan was Wally (not Tony Dow) and Casey Adams was Ward (not Hugh Beaumont). In HAZEL, the Mr. B. character was portrayed by Edward Andrews, not Don DeFore. A couple of tweaks led to memorable TV.

Todd Everett said...

We all remember a place called "Preview House" on Sunset Blvd., right? You'd get a free ticket (often handed out om the street like Scientology "personality tests), if you swore to all that's holy you had nothing to do with the entertainment or advertising businesses.

The promise was that you'd get to see a preview of some up-and-coming TV show. The reality was that, wired to some central sensory devices (e-meters? Who knows?) you'd see a couple of "control" films to the guys in white jackets could calibrate their instruments; then you'd be exposed to a bunch of commercials, which is what they were really testing.

How does that apply here? One of the "control" films was, invariably, the Mr. Magoo cartoon that had him at a ski lodge.

And it seemed that the promised "preview" would be one of a seemingly endless number of pilots starring Bill Bixby, who may have been the Jim Gaffigan of his time.

David said...

Recasting failed pilots predates television. The early TV comedy OUR MISS BROOKS had actually premiered on radio in 1948, with Eve Arden as Miss Brooks and Gale Gordon as her nemesis, principal Osgood Conklin. But an earlier pilot exists starring Shirley Booth as Miss Brooks and Will Wright as Conklin.

Mike McCann said...

I believe the most famous episode of "Failure Theater" was actually HEAD OF THE FAMILY, which after it failed to sell, was aired once around 1959. Of course, a few casting changes later, it became a tremendous artistic and ratings success as THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

I certainly recall the practice of burning off old pilots. Back in the mid-'60s, if you recall, CBS used to schedule VACATION PLAYHOUSE or SUMMER PLAYHOUSE to air instead of Lucy, Andy or Danny on Monday nights. (I gather once they owned Desilu, it was in the network's financial interest not to overexpose their best sitcoms in the summer.) While most of these shows were mere fillers, I still, half a century later, fondly recall one standout episde: a failed Joan Blondell sitcom pilot where she played the secretary/personal assistant of a Golden-Age of Hollywood Studio mogul. Being roughly 11 at the time it aired, I have no idea why this show stuck with me, other than lifelong in show biz history. Maybe because unlike all the doctors, families and detectives, we have not had a lot of retro shows like that one. Regardless, the memory remains a fond one.

Jim said...

@Lee Goldberg: I've read your book and it's very entertaining. Always wondered why you started at 1955, though. Was information hard to come by prior to 1955?

Mike McCann said...

@Bob O'Brien Leszczak: You forgot the most famous cast member of that first BEAVER pilot who never made the series. Harry Shearer was cast as the bratty pal of Wally's (can't recall the character's name, but it was not Eddie Haskell).

Dan Ball said...

Whatever happened to that failed Jeffrey Hunter pilot from the mid-60s? It was set in space, but I forget the name of it. It's like he and these other people were all astronauts on some kind of space voyage. Anybody know where I can see this?

(Okay, I'm done being an ass.)

Brett said...

@Mike McCann: Giving her series a summer break was a longstanding habit of Lucy's. (I LOVE LUCY's 1952 summer replacement was MY LITTLE MARGIE.) For a long time you could spend your summer away from Lucy watching Desilu's failed pilots from the previous year. (Though in later years, HERE'S LUCY used reruns of Ball's earlier THE LUCY SHOW as a summer replacement.)

Carol Burnett always went off like that for the summer. Really bugged me when I was a kid.

john driscoll Voice Over America said...

We went to several test screenings at Preview House on Sunset near Crescent Heights and they would wire our hands with galvanic skin response sensors , then we would watch a few pilots , sometimes there was a Q and A afterwards. , most of them were God awful .

Anonymous said...

BTW, "Bad Monkey" is a very funny book. Nowhere near as good as yours, of course, but still worth reading.

Stuart

chas said...

It seemed like Preview House had only one failed pilot to surround all the commercials they were testing. It was show starring Fred Gwynne as a wacky inventor. Must have seen it a dozen times.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Lee Goldberg: well, that's the Christmas present for one of my most difficult friends sorted. Thanks. :)

wg

Mike Schryver said...

Lee Goldberg:

I also love your book. I'd pay a whole lot for a Kindle version of it.

James said...

The land where failed pilots went used to be called Love, American Style.

media_lush said...

Must Kill TV is showing for $3.21 [I'm from the UK]

Pamela Jaye said...

We went to one of those "screenings" where they tell you it's a new show but they're sing old shows to test commercials. My friend had gone years before and described the sitcom she watched so completely that I was able to peg it as (a late 80s?) drama called Blue Skies. (Season Hubley, Tom Wopat - used to watch it).

This time, most of the room knew better, and spent half the time trying to figure the time period of said "new pilot." The tech made it easier. The most remembered piece, a cordless home phone way past its prime (in 2008 at least). Some even recognized what show it was. (Not me.)

I'll never forget the ad for Charmin about other brands that leave pieces on your butt. I was stunned to see it on actual TV - possibly recorded before the "test."

Pamela Jaye said...

someone gave me a taped copy of a vote for this pilot show circa 1987 hosted by Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid, starring Scott Bakula, titled Infiltrator. Scientist invents teleportation and teleports himself into an alien space probe in a lab nearby. Now they are merged. When he gets upset he turns into a robot with missiles. Or something. Been a while since I watched it.

Lairbo said...

Wasn't the show "Love American Style" made up (at least largely) of chopped-up failed pilots?

"Find Gary Busey." said...

I REALLY want to see the failed HAWAII FIVE-0 pilot that starred Gary Busey as Steve McGarrett. Who wouldn't?!?!?!?!

Albert Giesbrecht said...

A few years ago, I attended a test screening of a TV Pilot called Blind Men, about blind salesmen, that is, men who sell blinds, not visually impaired salesmen.

Alan C said...

Here's a clip from a failed pilot called "Suicide Theater" with DeForrest Kelley. I saw this once on a video collection called TV Turkeys.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2E9I7VqNrH4

John said...

You can also toss in the half-pilot Universal did for "The Munsters" without Yvonne De Carlo or Butch Patrick as an initial failure that was re-tooled into a success (albeit more in re-run land than as a network series).

Joan Marshall has far more of a Carolyn Jones/Morticia Adams look, while Eddie in this version is borderline mentally disturbed. It's also interesting that the studio shot almost 14 minutes of what did turn out to be the series' first episode in color, but CBS was still two years away from finally getting over losing their fight over U.S. color television standards to RCA, and opted to do the series in black and white.

Mitch said...

Regarding the MUNSTERS pilot, they shot the entire half-hour script. The film did not survive intact, though. Frankly, I thought black and white worked better for this series. The makeups weren't really designed for color film.

Gabe said...

No, LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE was not made up of failed pilots. The show's scripts were written specifically for the series.

Rebecca said...

Hi Ken,
I'm in Canada but even trying a VPN through a US connection onto Amazon.com still shows it at the higher price. Shrug. Silly Amazon!

BobZirunkel said...

Honestly, Rebecca ...
Pay the $2.99, post your address and I'll mail you a toonie.

LouOCNY said...

Living close to New York, you could go down to the Rockefeller Center area, and there would be people with CBS buttons on their shirts giving out tickets to a similar experiene, where you would wait in the lobby o the Black Rock, and get taken up to a room with red and green buttons, watching a CURRENT show still being tested. The one time it was the short lived WHIZ KIDS with Matthew Labartoux (whoever he was), and Wojo from BARNEY MILLER as the only continuing adult.

Speaking of DeForest Kelley an pilots, here is the pilot he did with Roddenberry in the 50's - 333 Montgomery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWQfJJs_LJo

MikeN said...

JAG ran for a half season on NBC before getting cancelled and later picked up by CBS where it went on for another 8 years, then produced a fake spinoff that ran another ten years and counting, which itself produced its own fake spinoff that has been running the past five years. Big loss for NBC, which still feels like the natural home for NCIS and The Blacklist.

Roger Owen Green said...

Well, Lee Goldberg - I put both your books on my Amazon wish list.

Roger Owen Green said...

Well, Lee Goldberg - I put both your books on my Amazon wish list.

Liggie said...

A decade ago, the now-defunct cable channel Trio had a feature called "Brilliant But Cancelled", which showed noteworthy short-lived shows (e.g. Jon Cryer's "The Famous Teddy Z" and Beau Bridges' "United States") and specials on the pilot development process.

Once they dedicated a night on a number of rejected pilots. The one that stands out in my mind concerned a young psychiatrist trying to start his own therapy practice. Andrea Martin was his rival, a long-established therapist, and "Kids in the Hall" member Kevin MacDonald was a patient/client (a guest role, likely). Seems like those two have been in their share of failed projects, though Martin's recovered nicely on Broadway.

Rochelle Rabin said...

Andrea Martin can be seen on NBC this summer in a sitcom called "Working the Engels." I happened to catch it last night. Apparently NBC picked up 12 episodes.

Anonymous said...

A couple of corrections:

Gary Busey did not play Steve McGarrett in the unsuccessful "Hawaii Five-O" pilot. No one did. This version was a continuation of the original series, not a reboot. The original cast (minus Jack Lord) appeared in their old roles (Danno was now the governor of Hawaii), with Russell Wong as the new leader of Five-O, and Busey as his assistant. In other words, Busey was the equivalent of Danno, not McGarrett.

There is no such thing as "Suicide Theater." That story with DeForrest Kelly as a man attempting to kill himself was an episode of an obscure anthology series. Some years ago, a video company (Rhino?) included this on a tape of old TV odds and ends, with the credits chopped off and some text identifying it as the pilot for "Suicide Theater," a series in which every week someone would attempt suicide. The video company presumably did this to be funny. Ignorant people on the Internet keep repeating it in order to feel superior.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and another correction:

"Love, American Style" was not all pilots, but despite what Gabe claims, it did include a few. In fact, two led to series: the animated "Wait Till Your Father Gets Home" and, of course, "Happy Days."

Patrick said...

I believe both Mulaney and The McCarthys are do-overs from last season, along with the Jim Gaffigan project.... It'd be interesting to know how much money Fox and CBS have put into re-shooting and re-piloting those projects, versus abandoning it altogether and starting a new project from scratch.

AAllen said...

John: I always thought it was strange that The Musters was in black and white while its theatrical movie Musters Go Home was in color. I had always thought that the producers thought the movie would have a longer shelf life for television so they had to shoot it in color, while no one would bother seeing reruns of the television series. My dad insisted that the series was done in black and white to look more like a Gothic horror movie.

And nearsighted Mr. Magoo as the control setting for audience testing? I wonder if the researchers noticed the irony.

Mike Doran said...

THE MUNSTERS wasn't in color because CBS wasn't broadcasting in color in 1964.

Had the show been picked up for the '66 season (which would have been its third), it would have gone to color, as did the rest of CBS's schedule ( and ABC's as well - meaning THE ADDAMS FAMILY would have also).

antoniod said...

Hmm, let me see if I can remember the pilots I saw as a kid. There was one with Fred Gwynne as a Victorian era department store owner, "Big Daddy", with Rosie Greir as a Football player turned TV chef, a show with Arte Johnson as a goofy private eye, "Wednesday Night Out", which was just going to show a weekly get-together of four families every week, "Heaven Help Us", about a remarried widower haunted by the ghost of his first wife, a show about a widow haunted by the ghost of her Husband-played by Frank Sutton, who really did die after filming the pilot, a show about a ghost named Barnaby(Lots of ghosts), a "New Phil Silvers Show" where Phil played a security guard(I was wishing they'd just repeat Bilko), I must remember some more.......

antoniod said...

I also remember Soupy Sales as a kiddie show host who meets a talking bear, and a "Topper" revival with Roddy McDowall.