Saturday, September 03, 2016

The truth about premise pilots

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?”)

On the other hand, premise pilots can be deceiving. Will there ever be a bigger moment on BEWITCHED than Darrin discovering that Samantha’s a witch?  (Sorry.  SPOILER ALERT)

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.

It took us forever to write the first draft. The reaction was lukewarm at best. We met with Brandon Tartikoff to get our notes. This was the first time Brandon had been involved in the project. He started the meeting by saying, “Why did you guys start the show in her apartment and not the theater?” We explained that the moron before him told us we had to. Brandon said, ”that’s ridiculous.” That was his only note.

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.


Stephen Marks said...

"Sorry spoiler alert", that was funny.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Somebody has to sell fruit at the freeway exits. Might as well be an ex-network exec.

Richard John Marcej said...

As I read today's blog two of my favorite series pilots popped into my head.
WKRP In Cincinnati's pilot used the premise of new program director, Andy Travis, starting his first day at the station and is introduced to a collection of oddball co-workers.
Taxi's pilot also used the same sort of premise as a new driver, John Burns (who'd only last one season) is sort of starting his first day at the cab company and meets a collection of oddball co-workers.
Fortunately for those two shows they were very character driven and the premise pilot worked. I knew that each week it would be the characters that I would want to tune in to watch.

B.A. said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding 'premise pilot' but I can recall some sitcoms that explained the premise in the theme song, or intro: 'but they're cousins, identical cousins..' 'and they knew they were much more than a bunch...', 'its five-year mission...'
Maybe premise pilots are out of style because they would use too much potential ad-time with a theme song.

tnje said...

Breaking Bad demonstrates another reason premise pilots have come back. Even when they were in fasion, it's hard to imagine selling a premise pilot in the 20th century for a regular drama where the main character was given two years to live. But now you're allowed, even expected, to tell a story with a middle beggining and an end.

Also, sounds like the "open in the apartment" note for the improv script goes beyond just a no premise pilots rule. Wouldn't the theater have been a regular location in the series?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, there aren't, and probably won't ever again, many TV execs like Tartikoff.

Pam, St. Louis

Igor said...

Ken, of course you've seen a lot of baseball, so maybe this isn't weird to you, but it sure was to me: Batter hits a ground ball foul, never leaves home plate, and 7 seconds later he's put out at first:

(Also, to my ears the announcer sounds kinda like Dennis Conroy of the Isotopes.)

David Schwartz said...

Your discussion about the "buffoon executive" who had you restructuring your pilot even though it didn't make sense to do so, reminded me of something from my past.

I think that sometimes these people are so fearful of what their bosses will think (this guy with Fred Silverman) that they are desperate to make sure they don't upset them. As a result, they go overboard to have things conform a belief they have, even if it doesn't make any sense to do so.

About 30 years ago I was working on the television series "Solid Gold." We had Barry Manilow doing a pre-record (he was recording the instrumental backing tracks so he could sing live on stage over the track) and I was producing the session. He had someone who worked for him who kept telling me that we had to have massive echo in his headphones. He said something like, "Mr. Manilow needs to have all of the echo possible in his headphones for him to like how it sounds." So... we kept pumping up the echo in the headphones. At first there was a lot of echo, but this wasn't good enough for the guy. He kept saying, "more echo, more echo." I said to him that the echo had become so overpowering you couldn't even hear the music and he kept repeating his comment that Mr. Manilow needed as much echo as possible.

Finally, Barry Manilow sat down at his piano, put on his headphones and his first comment was something like, "I'm sure if you could hear the way these headphones sound you wouldn't have them like this. There's way too much echo." I don't think I ever saw anyone turn more pale than his assistant, who frantically said, "Drop the echo, drop the echo."

The point of this story is that sometimes assistants are so concerned with the way their bosses will perceive things that they dismiss their own judgment and do everything they can to placate their bosses. And no one can do their jobs if they are no longer making judgments for themselves, but are just trying to do what they perceive their bosses want, even when those things don't make a lot of sense.

cd1515 said...

totally agree with David Schwartz, that kind of thing happens all the time in all walks of life.
Ken, I bet Silverman would've liked your pilot just fine starting at the theater.

Donald Benson said...

An outdated question, perhaps: I recall reading about producers who'd shoot lavish pilots, make a network sale based on the visible production values, and cheap out for the actual series. I can see where many shows would have a big initial investment in main sets -- the CHEERS bar and the MASH camp, for examples -- but did you ever see a case where the pilot was loaded with locations and exteriors, only to retreat to a few characters in small rooms thereafter?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I like premise pilots. I think perhaps the most clever and unique was GREEN ACRES, in which John Daly narrated the events of how Oliver came to discover Hooterville and eventually buy the farm from Mr. Haney: it set up the premise, it introduced the characters, it established the series' tone, and I wish more pilots accomplished all of that so well. Likewise, the pilots for BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE did it well too, with having Darrin learn Samantha is a witch, and Tony finding Jeannie in her bottle on the uncharted island, respectively.

I kind of wish other shows did the same. It would have been an interesting pilot for M*A*S*H had we seen how the 4077th was established, and the characters' reactions to being assigned there; or perhaps if HOGAN'S HEROES did a pilot showing us Hogan and his men forming their escape unit within Stalag 13.

Bruce Kane said...

Here’s a twist on the pilot premise as presented to me by the good folks at CBS Comedy Development. I was called in many years ago, along with two producing partners, to listen to an idea the comedy team at CBS had for a series. This requires a little world history as a preface. At the time, the country of Rhodesia, with its all white government, had overnight become Zimbabwe, a country with an all black government.Got that? Also, keep in mind that the team at CBS had listened to hundreds of pitches that year, alone. You would think they’d know what a well thought out pitch sounded like. Well, you’d be wrong. This was their pitch to us.
There is an embassy in Washington for a country like Rhodesia. It has a white ambassador (think George Hamilton) who has a black assistant (think Robert Guillame, who was popular at the time for playing a character named Benson on two sitcoms). Overnight, there is a change of government from white to black. Guillame is now the ambassador and Hamilton is now the reluctant and unhappy assistant. Okay? Good so far? If you are waiting for to hear the rest, then so were we.. At the time the three of us were under contract at a studio and when the network hands you a pilot you don’t go back to the company empty handed. So, we naturally expressed our love for the project and got up to leave. This was on a November 1. As I was walking out the door, the head of CBS Comedy asked if they could have it by Thanksgiving. Once again, I said “no problem.” When I finally turned in the script and went back for notes, there was a whole new bunch in the room except for the head of CBS Comedy Development. The first complaint was that the Robert Guillame character sounded too much like Robert Guillame. The characters should be more like Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. I asked if we had Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, the answer was, “Well, no.” Do we have anybody like Wilder and Pryor? No. Is there anybody like Wilder and Pryor? I did my next draft, another version of the premise pilot, and the project was never heard from again. And neither was anybody else in that room except the head of Comedy Development who had a long and prosperous career in television.

Craig Gustafson said...

Friday question - How hard is it to write episodes that attack the premise?
For instance - "The Phil Silvers Show" had an episode where Bilko goes to reunion of his WWII outfit, where one of them offers him a civilian job, answering the question, "Why is a guy this sharp in the army, not making money in business?" In another, it's "Why does Colonel Hall put up with Bilko?" So Bilko asks for a transfer, Hall grants it and both are plunged into Hell. Or the classic example, "What if the Army became so concerned with mass processing that a chimpanzee is inducted?" Okay, maybe this was not a burning question.

I generally dislike "Bewitched", but they had one really nice episode where Darrin discovered that Samantha was not going to age at the same rate he did. So she backed off and let him decide whether or not he wanted to stay married to her. It was a sweet episode that attacked the premise. Human reactions, not just Endora turning Darrin into a wombat.

Gary said...

An interesting variation on a premise pilot was the first episode of The Fugitive, the classic series with David Janssen as Richard Kimble. The show began six months AFTER Kimble had escaped and became a fugitive. Several episodes later they filled in the backstory with some flashbacks showing Kimble's wife's murder, the trial and his escape.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Here's another interesting variation: COMBAT!'s pilot showed us the squad at Fort Ord, and their anticipation awaiting D-Day and being shipped out - they even indulge in a pool, of which one of the soldiers (played by funnyman Shecky Green) won $800 (but later lost it in battle); later, we see how being thrusted into the war and its brutality affected each of the soldiers and how they handled it.

The only problem was COMBAT! was one of those shows that was originally broadcasted out of order, and it ended up being aired as like the eleventh or twelfth episode, so I think the network passed it off as a "flashback" episode.

Donald Benson said...

Many older shows are all about attacking the premise -- with the understanding the status quo will be restored at fadeout. We know Tony, Roger and Jeannie will outwit Dr. Bellows, and we know he'll suffer no consequences for bringing crazy stories to his superiors every week. We watch for the comedy, and with some curiosity as to how they'll reset all the clocks to zero.

The "Bewitched" episode isn't familiar to me, but I see where it could be troublesome in a continuity way. After their marriage survived a genuine trial like that, you'd expect Sam to be more than usually emotional the next time Endora turned him into a wombat.

Dana Gabbard said...

I believe the Bewitched episode was from the first season, when Danny Arnold produced it and didthe bulk of the writing.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Joseph, I was going to mention the GREEN ACRES pilot, but for the opposite reason that you did: I thought it was astounding that they even bothered to make it. For me, it's extremely slow and pointless. The entire premise is summed up in the theme song! If you were making it today, I'm sure you'd skip the pilot - or make it a three-minute tease - and you'd start the show with ep 2.


Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Wendy, I think that's pretty much the reason why Sid & Marty Kroffts' shows never had proper pilots or starter episodes: all their shows pretty much summed up their premises in their long, expository theme songs.

I suppose when you put it that way, I guess I can see why, when you factor in the theme song, such a premise pilot as GREEN ACRE's would be pretty redundant and unnecessary. . . . but then again, back then, weren't pilot episodes generally skipped in some cases anyway, at least for syndication? I heartell for a number of years, the HOGAN'S HEROES pilot was omitted from syndication because of too many differences from the series proper (such as being black-and-white instead of color, Carter being a guest character instead of a regular, Klink having a more stern demeanor, way more tunnels and all of the prisoners being part of Hogan's operation, etc.)

Gregg Spann said...

I suppose GREEN ACRES could have done what THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES did. HILLBILLIES didn't start using the whole theme song and opening until episode two. The pilot opened with shots of Beverly Hills, and then of the Clampetts driving down a street in their old truck, with the announcer saying something like, "This is Beverly Hills, and here come the Beverly Hillbillies," with a few seconds of the theme played instrumentally.

The HOGAN'S HEROES pilot was in the syndication package, but some stations opted not to air it. The station where my dad worked didn't, because it was in black and white. They used to skip over the GET SMART pilot for the same reason. With both of the those shows, they'd run the final episode, then start over the next day with episode two. The station my dad worked for was black and white-phobic. They had BEWITCHED for several years and had the black and white episodes sitting on the shelf, but never aired them. Only the color episodes ever got shown.

Sherwood Schwartz used to get asked why the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND pilot was about the castaways' first day on the island, rather than showing them all boarding the boat, the storm, the shipwreck and all. Schwartz used to explain that all that was in the opening credits and it would have been pointless to elaborate on it in the pilot.