Traditionally, studio or network executives decide which potential television series make it to air. A pilot episode is an important part of this decision process. It is a complete package meant to illustrate the cost, process, and tone of a possible show. The pilot is a test that allows for tinkering or rejection. While a series creator can refine aspects of a show in a working environment, the pilot episode is made primarily for approval by the business side of television production. Marketing interests are key. The pilot process is a demonstrable method of further filtering potential television series, measuring them against an ever changing metric of audience reaction. Executives gauge a television show's feasibility for success before standing in final judgment.
However, some of television's most successful, creative, or popular shows skirt the customs of the pilot program. Some series minimize, conflict with, or outright avoid the role of pilots. Executives are the ultimate decision makers, and their decisions are sometimes generated by means other than a preliminary episode. Something special indicates that a show is worth taking the chance to step outside the normal system. This route is referred to as a "backdoor pilot," but the connotation of the term implies a craftiness and necessity. Name recognition, a weight of work, or the individual preference of an executive outweigh the need for a pilot. A limited number of series and their creators utilize this approach to maintain the integrity of their creative vision. The proof of their success is found in actual success on television screens around the world.
A few creative shows find creative ways to convince executives of their worth. They pioneer their own path on their ways into the memories of viewing audiences.
In the early 1950s, Walt Disney wants a television series. Walt Disney usually gets what he wants. This time, Disney desires to expand into a new medium for two reasons: capturing the imaginations of new Baby Boom families and to raise awareness and money for a large project in Southern California. This project is later known as Disneyland, USA, the famous theme park. Disney approaches both NBC and CBS with proposals for a weekly show hosted by himself. Both NBC and CBS decline, and Disney searches elsewhere for airtime and funding. He goes to the then fledgling network ABC.
ABC sees an opportunity to seize audiences from NBC and CBS with a big name like Disney. They jump at the opportunity and even agree to an expensive stipulation. Walt Disney and his brother Roy, often considered the business side of the Disney family, negotiate a deal with ABC executives for a television show as well as major funding for their theme park. ABC agrees to give Disney half a million dollars, collateral for any bank loans, and a weekly television series. In exchange, Disney gives ABC a share of the park and a guaranteed successful television show.
Basically, Disney visits ABC with an idea, demanding a timeslot and half a million dollars. ABC agrees due to Disney's prestige. It would be the equivalent of the President of the United States requesting airtime from networks for a national address and having the CEO of HBO hand over an oversized novelty check for the Space Program during the speech. More or less.
Walt Disney hosts this show, aptly titled Disneyland, as a cross-media promotion. A family sits down once a week to listen to Uncle Walt tell an engaging story. Along with the updates on Disneyland, the show has historical vignettes (such as "Davy Crockett"), first airings of recent Disney films, and behind the scenes materials of upcoming films. Disney utilizes the show as his platform to address the world, and the world listens. Shortly after its first episode airs on October 27, 1954, the show finds adoring audiences, vindicating Disney's gamble and apparent bravado.
When the traditional approval systems of NBC and CBS reject Disney, Disney finds executives at ABC willing to take a chance outside of the norm and find new success. This circumventing of custom allows Disney to maintain his vision for the show. The show itself continues for 54 years in almost its original form (Walt Disney's death affects the format). It transforms from Disneyland to The Wonderful World of Color to The Wonderful World of Disney. Up until its cancellation in 2008, the show airs on Saturdays, showcasing Disney films, celebrities, and promotions.
Disneyland, the television series, proves that one can circumvent a probative pilot with the right name.
In the mid 1970s, fashionable Canadian Lorne Michaels illustrates another way to bypass a large part of the system: hard work paired with luck.
In 1974, NBC needs a new program to fill a late night spot on Saturdays. Up to this point, reruns of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson are aired. Johnny Carson, with his own clout, wants time off during the week and requests the reruns be reserved for this purpose. NBC agrees. The impetus for a new show comes from the top down rather than authorization of a proposal. Vice President of Late Night Programming Dick Ebersol searches for this substitute show. Ebersol desires a hip, cheap variety program to attract younger viewers who are likely to be up around Midnight. He contacts sketch comedy writer Lorne Michaels for this purpose, and Michaels agrees to do the show.
A series of coincidences align to give Michaels a substantial amount of freedom from the traditional approval apparatus. NBC wants the show produced in New York City. Most television productions move to Los Angeles by the 1970s, and NBC executives wish to justify the infrastructure established in Rockefeller Center. The distance from Los Angeles provides a freedom through separation. Furthermore, the live nature of the show allows a great deal of experimentation and discovery. The show can address issues such as current events and politics as the finalized show is not set until it is shot live. The show stumbles into timely relevance. Additionally, Michaels and his producers adopt a week-by-week production schedule. This schedule means that ideas are quickly generated and immediately put into effect at the end of the week. Executive interference or objection is difficult due to the ever changing shape of the show.
Lorne Michaels prepares his show for the Fall 1975 season. His group of hand selected writers and performers search for ways to take the largely standard variety show format and turn it slightly askew. The show does not receive a traditional pilot and is given a trial by fire. The first episode of Michael's show, called NBC's Saturday Night, airs on October 11, 1975. The show quickly gains traction due to changes over the course of its first season. These changes are creative interests rather than business ones, focusing on a move towards rapid fire sketch comedy. Week after week, Michaels refines the show in a state of relative freedom. At points during its initial seasons, the show is placed on a state of weekly renewal. Every week's show acts as a type of pilot, gauging the audience's reaction. For a show like Michaels', the series is only as strong as its last show.
The show becomes a television mainstay with the relative freedom that Lorne Michaels strives for at the show's inception. Michaels develops a media empire on this pattern, creating a low key style of management (Dr. Evil is Mike Myers' impression of Lorne Michaels' attitude with Dana Carvey doing a similar impression).
If Disney's path to getting a television show to air is influence and Michaels' is luck, Jim Henson's continued efforts constitute a persevering approach. Jim Henson and his Muppets are a long time staple of television. Starting in 1966, Jim Henson appears on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform a "Rock Monster" Muppet sketch. Additionally, Henson creates commercials using his Muppet characters. In 1969, Henson creates the hit children's show Sesame Street. By the mid-1970s, Henson wishes to create a new show, titled The Muppet Show, aimed at more adult audiences. His fuzzy, floppy friends are household names, but executives at all the major American networks reject the show.
Jim Henson attempts the traditional pilot cycle, but his efforts fail. ABC gives Henson two Muppet television specials. These specials act as pilots. Executives at ABC are dubious about a colorful puppet show appealing to older audiences. The first special is The Muppets Valentine Show, which airs in early 1974. Executives are not convinced of the show's target audience but allow a second special to air. The second special is given a sarcastic title to show a possible series' attractiveness to adults: The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. ABC still declines, and Henson returns to the drawing board.
Jim Henson knows that his Muppets are successful creations. They are nearly ubiquitous on North American television. Henson continues to appear on Ed Sullivan and even finds a spot on Lorne Michael's Saturday Night. Henson continues to pitch his show, citing the overwhelming fan base, but American executives are hesitant to take a risk outside of standardized television conventions. Some are willing to attempt the show if the basic structure of Henson's vision is altered. Essentially, they want to remove Henson from the project but keep the Muppet name. Jim Henson and his performers decide to take a radical move to sidestep the approval gate for new television series.
Jim Henson takes his show to England. Few remember The Muppet Show as a British television series, but Henson produces the show in England with broadcaster Associated Television, or ATV. ATV Chief Lew Grade approaches Jim Henson after his failures in the United States, and the two strike a deal that gives Henson a wide berth to produce the show as he sees fit. Henson creates a self-referential show about the difficulties of producing a variety program. With production completed, the show is then syndicated back to America, where it becomes a smash hit. Jim Henson is correct where the television authorization system is wrong, and the Muppets become an endearing part of television lore.
The television show itself and even the 1979 Muppet Movie become a fictionalization of Jim Henson's endeavors (endeavours) to create a Muppet franchise. In the film, British executive Lew Grade is parodied as Hollywood mogul Lew Lord (Orson Welles). Lew Lord is shown as being immediately receptive to Kermit and his group's proposal for a show. He hands Kermit a lucrative contract after Kermit's long struggle, like Lew Grade and Jim Henson.
Jim Henson and company work hard inside the pilot development system but find nothing but disappointment. They conceive a new path to reaching their goal -- a globe trekking path with an impact on global culture.
The Simpsons have a similar pervasiveness to the Muppets but have a different story of reaching television. Several primetime cartoons undergo a bizarre piloting process before reaching air, and The Simpsons is one of the first. Considering that cartoons are much more expensive to produce than a live show or even Muppet theater, the best way to describe the altered approval process for a cartoon is ascension by universal acclimation.
In 1986, famed producer James L. Brooks begins assembling talent for a Fox variety show called The Tracey Ullman Show. Brooks and the shows' producers search for an interstitial segment to buffer advertising. They decide on animated shorts and ask a comic strip artist named Matt Groening for ideas. Groening, artist of Life in Hell, has little to no experience in animation but creates an idea. He satirizes American family life based on his own childhood with a family of cartoon characters called the Simpsons. The producers of the Tracey Ullman Show love the idea and animate the shorts. They do so cheaply and quickly, even borrowing two of Ullman's sketch players (Julie Kavner and Dan Castellaneta) for voices.
When the shorts air, they are deemed funny by audiences. The characters are relatable but edgy, and the loose animation style lends a charm to the shorts. The variety show component is popular, winning multiple Emmy Awards, but "The Simpsons" shorts are the most popular segment. Audience reaction is so overwhelmingly positive that Fox executives are interested in transforming the shorts into a half-hour cartoon. Matt Groening along with James L. Brooks pitch an expanded version of the shorts, and Fox approves.
The Simpsons bypasses the traditional pilot due largely to audience support for a spin-off. Audiences have an investment in seeing the characters develop further. Groening constructs a show that mixes absurdity with emotion in a recognizable setting, and Fox executives buy a thirteen episode season. The first episode is the Christmas Special "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," which is actually the eighth episode in production (reordering first episodes is a common practice when a pilot is not produced). The show is a resounding success as one of the first primetime cartoons since the 1960s. The Simpsons eventually dwarfs its parent show and takes on the likes of television juggernauts as The Cosby Show (and loses).
Matt Groening and The Simpsons are a product of rare opportunity and talent. A Hollywood outsider is brought into the system and successfully shakes it. Exceptions to rules are made to allow The Simpsons to exist and survive, and it has a lasting impact on television to this day.
Comedy Central's South Park is another show that develops due to audience acclaim and finesses the pilot development system. Like Matt Groening and The Simpsons ("Simpsons did it"), Trey Parker and Matt Stone are invited into the Hollywood system and manage to find themselves a successful handhold.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are University of Colorado students in 1992. In a film class, they produce a construction paper cutout cartoon starring children witnessing a bizarre event. The cartoon short, titled "The Spirit of Christmas," features an infant Jesus defeating an evil snowman. The short gains the attention of a Fox executive named Brian Graden, who hires the pair to animate a video Christmas card. The duo agree and animate a short where Jesus fights Santa. In Winter 1995, Graden distributes the video to friends and family, and it is a stunning success among the small audience. The short challenges perceptions, plus it has two holiday icons violently beating each other.
One of the short's recipients digitizes the footage and places it on the Internet. The recently developed RealPlayer allows for (highly compressed) streaming of video over dialup connections. Websites and newsgroups propel the popularity of the "Jesus Vs. Santa" short among young, technologically savvy types. It is one of the first Internet Viral Videos, disproving the concept of Internet celebrity in later South Park episode "Canada on Strike."
Various networks are interested in turning the short into a series and attracting its young audience to weekly viewership. Parker and Stone turn down several offers in order to maintain control over the project. They accept an offer from cable network Comedy Central and executive Doug Herzog. Herzog offers a tentative development deal based on an unconventional pilot. Parker and Stone spend three months animating the pilot episode "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe." The episode tests negatively among most demographics, but Comedy Central executives are still interested in the success of the short among young males. Audience acclaim saves South Park from cancellation, and a season is eventually ordered.
The show becomes a success through alternate means. Again, talent is scouted by executives who recognize that interesting ideas exist outside of the purview of the traditional pilot system.
In 1995, MacFarlane is an animation student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He creates numerous shorts including his thesis "The Life of Larry." The short is about an oafish middle-aged man and an intelligent, talking dog (also known as what would happen if Mr. Peabody and Sherman aged thirty years). His professors submit the short to Hanna-Barbera, who eventually offer him a job. At Hanna-Barbera, MacFarlane continues to develop his idea and remakes the short as "Larry and Steve." In turn, this short is submitted to Fred Seibert's anthology animation show What a Cartoon! Executives at several networks view the shorts, including Fox.
After several negotiating meeting, Fox executives ask MacFarlane to develop a show with expanded characters. MacFarlane works hard and animates a demo based around "Larry and Steve" with an included family. The reliance on two characters in MacFarlane's ideas shows an adherence to a creative vision (or some would say dilatoriness). The demo relies on a series of "Do You Remember?" moments that directly reference popular culture. These references are almost delivered in a breaking style that creates a staccato rhythm to the show. The demo intrigues Fox executives who are interested in "Neo-stalgia," a term encompassing positive memories of a childhood not that long ago among 13 to 40 year olds. The show is bought by Fox and titled Family Guy.
Family Guy, during its first run, is the victim of several factors. Airing after Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999, the show garners high viewership. Over the course of its first season, these number drop. Then the show is shuffled among timeslots, and viewership plummets. The show is cancelled in 2002 after three seasons. Executives feel that the show is noxious, and rerun rights are almost given away to Cartoon Network.
Family Guy remains popular among particular groups. These audiences find Family Guy on Cartoon Network, DVD, and on the Internet. These audiences clamor for Family Guy to return by using buying power. Once again, audience acclaim determines executive's decisions, and Family Guy is revived in 2005. In this fashion, the first three seasons of the show act as a pilot for Family Guy version 2 -- a long, drawn out pilot. MacFarlane claims to keep the show as it was before cancellation (dilatorily), but the absolution by appreciative audiences push the show heavily towards "Neo-stalgia."
Family Guy eventually expands into three spin-off shows and dominates primetime animation. In a decade, Seth MacFarlane goes from animation student to cartoon mogul. Whereas Disney, Michaels, Henson, Groening, Parker, and Stone hold a personal creative vision, Seth MacFarlane shares his vision with his specifically appreciative audience (for better or worse).
Television pilots are intended to be a refining process before a decision is made to produce a series. In development, a pilot undergoes criticism from business interests. Some commentators decry this process as limiting creativity and homogenizing television. There are examples of television shows eschewing this process to maintain creativity and integrity (if one values such items). For a majority, those that have an awkward development and an unusual trial, that may or may not include a traditional pilot, tend to be immensely popular and culturally impacting. The ideas are works of love and receive a layer of polish from their creators. Several of these examples can be considered iconic institutions. An analyst writes of television programs (paraphrasing Jurassic Park) that talent always finds a way. Regardless of the way a show gets made, the merit of new shows is determined by the watcher at home.