With networks buying pilot pitches, I thought I’d take this Friday Question from Jill Pinnella Corso and devote an entire post to it. The question:
Do you think premise pilots are a trend right now or are they always the default? It strikes me that it's easier to tell a story from the beginning, but if the pilot is too different from what the series will be, the audience could be confused or stop watching after the second episode. Do you have a preference for premise pilot vs. regular episode pilot?
Most pilots are premise-based these days. (Kevin James decides to spend more time with his kids and finds they're more of a handful than he thought, Matt LeBlanc decides to spend more time with his kids and finds they're more of a handful than he thought) It’s way easier to tell the story in a premise pilot. Otherwise, you’re doing a lot of backstory exposition. (“Remember when we were unhappy and I saw a cute baby in the market and thought maybe we should get one too?”)
It’s also so much easier to introduce the characters in a premise pilot. Your lead gets a job. She (and the audience) meet all her co-workers one at a time. As opposed to just being dropped in the middle of the office situation and having to figure out who everyone is on the fly.
The problem is that premise pilots are not representative of what the show will be every week. And the testing is skewed.
For a number of years in the ‘70s and ‘80s networks didn’t want premise pilots. But the problems that created (imagine jumping in the middle of BREAKING BAD and having to weave in the premise while just telling a typical episode) were worse so the nets went back to the premise model.
Premise pilots are also more in vogue today because networks currently favor high concept ideas. You need a big hook. So to not exploit that in the pilot is defeating the purpose.
Pilot premises are way easier to write. My partner, David and I had a pilot once for NBC about a guy and girl improv performer who decide to team up (a la Nichols & May for the nine people who get that reference).
Now the obvious way to tell that story is you see an improv class, you see the leads do a scene together and the chemistry really clicks, then you see them decide to become a team.
The idiot NBC exec said we couldn’t open at the improv class. Why? Because Fred Silverman (who ran NBC at the time) hates premise pilots. So we had to open in the girl’s apartment. Now imagine trying to explain to viewers (a) the concept of improvisational comedy, (b) the notion of a improv team, (c) just what it is about the two of them that is so magic, (d) who they are, (e) what their career status is, and (f) what their personal lives are like. All in an apartment.
We went home, re-wrote the script in two hours, turned it in shortly thereafter, and quickly got a pick-up to make the pilot. I bumped into the buffoon executive in the NBC hallway who congratulated us and said, “Wow! I don’t know what you guys did, but you really turned this thing around.”
Happy to say this cretin has been long-gone from the television industry. He's probably selling fruit at freeway offramps although that job might be too mentally taxing for him.
But like I said, one problem with premise pilots is that they sometimes don’t give you a sense what the series will be each week. I was helping out a writer friend on his premise pilot once. We were rewriting after a listless runthrough. There were probably six or seven of us struggling to make this show work. The hours went by. Sometime after midnight I asked: “What’s the second episode of this show?” to which he blurted out, “There IS no second episode! This piece of shit will never get on the air.”
He was right. But when you’re initially pitching your pilot to the network (as writers are doing right this very minute in various offices) you don’t give a shit about that. Just make the sale! And the best way is with a premise pilot. Preferably to an executive like Brandon Tartikoff.