Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The truth about Premise Pilots

With pilots still premiering, 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. (Matthew Perry joins the group in GO ON, the two gays set out acquiring a baby on NEW NORMAL, etc.) 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 THE NEIGHBORS than Jami Gertz learning her neighbors are from outer space? I’m talking instant classic! Or (to a lesser degree) Darrin discovering that Samantha’s a witch on BEWITCHED?

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.


Murr said...

It's like hearing an expert explain how a "Yellow-Speckled Pilot Bird" is vastly different than a "Gold-Spotted Pilot Bird".

Sadly, I'm not following the difference between the two formats.

John said...

IIRC, the premise pilot Danny Arnold did for "Bewitched" spent the first 12 minutes of the show getting the story line in place and the last 12 setting up a situation to make you sympathetic to the title characters. So the course change to what the show overall was going to be like came in the middle of the debut show and not in Episode 2, if setting up the premise had engulfed the entire 30-minute debut episode.

That would seem to be the best way to go if you're trying not to disappoint your viewers in Episode 2 by pivoting in a completely different direction, though the less forced/complicated the initial premise, the easier it is to get it out of the way quickly and start focusing on developing the characters.

(Also, while I'm in the neighborhood, here's a Friday question, Ken -- Have you ever written lines for a specific character, hearing in your mind how you want the lines to sound in the show, and then been disappointed when the reading doesn't quite come out the way you envisioned and gets less of a reaction than hoped for, either due to the actor or director deciding to do it his or her way?)

Kirk said...

The pilot for GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, which showed the Minnow taking off from Hawaii for the three hour cruise, getting caught in the storm, getting shipwrecked on the island; wasn't shown on the air, until much later on in the season in the form of a flashback. Instead, on the "first" episode, the castaways, already shipwrecked, listen to a news broadcast explaining the premise, as well as telling us the characters names, professions, etc. Pretty clever, actually. Probably the most clever that show ever got.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Murr: for an extreme example of a premise pilot, watch sometime the pilot of GREEN ACRES, in which Oliver and Eva spend most of the episode in their NYC apartment arguing about whether to move to Hooterville (premise pilot), which is absolutely nothing like any of the rest of the series, which all takes place *in* Hooterville.

By contrast, although the premise is set up in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER's pilot, the episode is actually representative of all the others - Marshall and Lily take a step forward in their relationship, Barney is Barney, and Ted gets into a doomed romantic entanglement that will eventually lead to his meeting the right woman.


Unknown said...

Thanks Ken! Great answer (plus I'm famous now).

I guess the networks go back and forth on these things. I read that Phil Rosenthal's original pilot idea for Raymond was Debra asking Ray to spend less time on the road, which was rejected as too premisey. This was literally the premise for the pilot of Last Man Standing last year (different network, of course).

You make a good case for premise pilots, depending on the show. I think Up All Night did a good job by having the premise be Reagan's first day back at work, rather than the birth, which they did as a flashback later.

Very informative, thanks again!

Rebecca said...

Speaking of Friday questions about pilots...I noticed this year that nearly every show features a really hot cast. But a lot of the enduring classic sitcoms actually feature a cast of average-looking people. Seinfeld, Golden Girls, Cheers, Two 1/2 Men, Everybody Loves Raymond etc. So why do new shows only feature hot people? Is this a case of network executives being out of touch and just assuming we only want to look at hot people? Will us average people ever get to relate to a tv show again?

Anonymous said...

Friday question, Ken ...

I can't even watch PARENTHOOD now that it's moved from mildly amusing sit-drama to rarely amusing nighttime soap to not-at-all amusing cancer psuedo-reality show. How involved does the network get in the tone of a show like this? I can't imagine NBC is thrilled with where this show has gone. (Although, it IS NBC, home of WHITNEY.) Thank you!

Doug Thompson said...

Ken, Here's a Friday question that you may or may not be able to answer based on your Wednesday blog.

How do these totally non-creative 'morons' (your word) get to be network executives in the first place?

DBenson said...

Long ago I recall reading that pilots were deliberately expansive and expensive, the producers using that to negotiate a high price before cheaping out on actual production. Presumably that was before the networks were paying for the pilot.

Do remember a few shows looking semi-lavish in their opening season, then progressively cheaper. "Batman" leaned more and more on stock footage of various Bat-vehicles and villain's lairs consisting of odd props in front of black curtains. "Lost in Space" was basically the spaceship and an assortment of large rocks, all indoors. And aside from a few early episodes you only saw the Beverly Hillbillies' front door, hall, kitchen and cee-ment pond -- never any other part of the house and grounds.

Anonymous said...

The pilot for "The Fugitive" with David Janssen was set up as a typical episode,with Richard Kimble already on the run for six months. The show's intro explained the whole premise every week. Later in the first season, they had an episode where Kimble was hit by a car, and under medication he flashed back to his wife's murder, etc.

Mike said...

Disagree with most of this. From wiki, there's two kinds of pilots, which you've merged into one: network pilot - a prototype episode with which the network can evaluate the series, and viewer pilot - the first episode screened. There's also a third kind - the first episode seen by a viewer, which can be any episode. (Though there seems to be a strange antisocial group behaviour in America called pilot week.)

The network pilot should be representative of the series, so may or may not be the first episode. So the exec may not have been entirely wrong. But if you need a premise pilot, your premise is wrong. Because the viewers cannot be so accommodating as to watch it first. (You yourself made this point recently, jumping midway into Game Of Thrones or such like.)

And what's the premise to a comedy? That a group of disparate people share a common space. Why or how that happens doesn't matter. (That's not to say that a story shouldn't have a beginning. Or that origin stories, in their own right, aren't highly marketable.)

404 said...

laprguy: You hit the nail on the head with PARENTHOOD. I loved that show at first, now I can barely watch it. Every week it's "what new tragedy are they going to go through?" and "what whiny hissyfit am I going to have to sit through now?"

It's turned into a terrible soap opera, basically,and last week I finallye realized that I've come to strongly dislike every character on that show.

Unfortunately, my wife still likes it, so . . .

scottmc said...

There is a story in the Wall Street Journal about major league baseball announcers. They rate the broadcast announcers by the degree that they 'homers'. The White Sox announcers were rated the biggest 'homers', the Mets announcers the least. The Mariners team was rated closer to the Mets than the White Sox.

Michael Fox said...

My own series started at one point, but I had so many reviewers asking about the backstory that i tried to weave that in, first by starting the pilot at a different point in time, and now by interweaving flashbacks with the original pilot. I'm still not sure what way works best.

Dean said...

Trivia, but regarding THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, producer Paul Henning lost the ability to film at the mansion whose exteriors served as the Clampett residence after the third season. They were allowed to film there only so long as they kept the location a secret. TV Guide spoiled things for them in the spring of 1965 and published the address. The owners of the mansion were overrun with idiots invading their property and denied Henning the right to film there in the future. Unfortunately, Henning said later, that happened just before the series began filming in color, so they were never able to film color stock shots of the mansion, the grounds, the Clampett's truck leaving or driving up to the mansion, etc. Throughout the first three seasons of the series, though, there is a surprising amount of footage in the series that was obviously filmed "on location" at the mansion.

chalmers said...

Another clever non-premise pilot device was on "Taxi" (not surprising given the quality of writers there).

As the episode opens, the garage pay phone is broken, so you get to see several cast members making their "dream" long-distance calls for free (look it up, youngsters).

It provided a little insight into each character and brought us into the plot where Alex meets his estranged teenage daughter as she changes planes from Argentina on her way to boarding school.

There's also more typical exposition as the pilot was Elaine's first day at work, so there's an excuse for Alex to identify characters and themes.

Mike Schryver said...

"The White Sox announcers were rated the biggest 'homers', the Mets announcers the least."

The disadvantage in growing up a Mets fan (well, one of them) is that almost EVERY other announcer sounds like a homer. There are degrees, of course. I just now heard a Cleveland announcer hollering for a potential homer to stay fair. Sounds awful to me.

Anonymous said...

Mike - Maybe you're just homerphobic.

cadavra said...

Just watched two new sitcoms. PARTNERS is not a "premise" pilot--we gradually learn what we need to know about the characters; THE NEIGHBORS is indeed a premise pilot. I don't know if it makes a difference, but I loved PARTNERS and thought NEIGHBORS was borderline dreadful.

DBenson said...

Also recall that Mrs. Drysdale vanished early on; never even alluded to in later years. Maybe she was attached to the mansion somehow.

Still, think if there was money around they could have mocked the front porch onto a different manse or backlot facade (or altered the interior set to match a new exterior location) without unduly alarming viewers. They certainly could have passed off ANY walled grounds as belonging to the Clampett estate; ever since Keystone moviemakers have placed distant locales side by side simply by editing. And there was nothing to stop them from building more interior rooms. Early on, I seem to remember a den where they turned the billiard table into a dinner table.

Heck, they could have given Jethro a chemistry set and blow up the old place (off camera), justifying a move.

Shelley said...

Generally, the higher the "concept," the more flaccid the writing?

Rock Golf said...

How I Met Your Mother may be the first show to ever have a premise finale.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

So if I'm going o your class, should I bring a premiss pilot or a regular one? Actually I am trying to set up a news series and we had such a good idea for a premiss pilot, a story telling trick that really worked, something like telling the story backwad, but better - that we were tempted to use that trick in every episode. But that just doesn't work. So now we just have to trust the characters and go with that.

Bill Taub said...

Dear Ken -- we both go back a long way -- but I sincerely hope my UCLA Spec Pilot Writing Class which starts in a month doesn't read this. I am a strong advocate of the prototypical episode pilot and think many series fail because they were bought off of premise pilots. Without going too far back into the archives, let's start with last week -- REVOLUTION premiered -- the set up was in the first sequence then it jumped to 15 years later which is where the series lies. I can tell much more clearly whether I'm going to like the series or not from this approach.

LAST RESORT aired tonight -- and is a premise pilot. I have much less of an idea what the series is.

THE NEW NORMAL looked like a premise pilot because it ended with the leads deciding to have a baby through a surrogate. One would have thought it would end with the baby being born. But no, I don't know how long it's going to take them but they're going through the whole complicated process -- for all I know it'll take them nine months or longer -- so the premise pilot was really a typical episode.

A perfect example of what I don't like about premise pilots was a couple seasons back there was a series called 'OUTSOURCED' -- the premise pilot was about this guy being downsized out of a job and ultimately ending with him having to go to India and work as the fish out of water at a telemarketing firm. The premise pilot ended and I had no idea what the series was going to be -- neither did a lot of other folks.

As one who runs a Spec Pilot workshop I have suggested what I call the hybrid -- the premise is built into the pilot script taking up as little time as possible -- no more than twenty percent -- and the rest of the time is a typical episode. And the set-up doesn't have to come at the beginning -- it can be flashbacks or whatever throughout the pilot.

As I tell my students, the premise pilot is going to come down to a one minute montage behind opening credits -- so, if you absolutely have to, write that montage -- then write a typical episode. Figuring out what the series is going to be is a lot harder to me than writing the set-up. This way somebody reading just the spec pilot will know the broad strokes of the set-up and also be able to envision a typical episode.

I could go on -- but this might be better as a discussion.

Thanks though for arguing the other side -- it's helped me become focus even more clearly on my approach!