A few networks have aired their abandoned pilots as TV specials. These are shows where the first episode was filmed, but production didn’t go any further than that, the pilot never having been ordered to series. They don’t quite feel like TV movies because there isn’t a clear conclusion, but the characters are doomed to never get further development or closure.
The most recent examples of this are USA’s Over/Under, which premiered last week, and NBC’s Mockingbird Lane, airing last Halloween. Mockingbird Lane had lots of potential and looked fantastic, but also had some very clear story problems that needed to be fixed were the project to move forward. Over/Under is a little more puzzling, because, despite some murkiness in the plot, the premise seemed solid.
The question is, why choose to air them at all? It will annoy fans who may like the show, who grow frustrated that they don’t get any more of the tale, and for those who don’t like it, well, that doesn’t really matter. What possible benefit does the network get by putting these on TV?
One possibility is, if enough people tune in, the network might have a viable project on its hands without taking the risk of paying for thirteen episodes up front. This way, there is already a built in audience before more money is spent, lowering the possibility that viewers won’t tune in, since it is known at the start how many people are interested in watching.
Yet, neither of these broadcasts has resulted in that happy occurrence as of yet. Instead, they remain a blip on the television schedule, likely to be forgotten in the annals of television history. It’s a terrible fate for any show.
Which means that it is hard to argue for more of these abandoned pilots to make it to air. The schedule is filled with reruns. Wouldn’t it be nice to fill some of those gaps with something original? Haven’t you heard about a pilot you really wanted to see, but it never saw the light of day? Yet, if these types of experiments don’t work, the networks won’t be encouraged to try them again.
Of course, with many viewers knowing ahead of time that the chances of these kinds of pilots going anyway are slim to none, many won’t tune in just because they don’t want to get invested. What’s the point? If they like it, they will just be disappointed in the end. If they don’t like it, they wasted their time. It’s a lose/lose situation for audiences.
I have a proposal, and anyone can use it free of charge. I promise here, in writing, I will not sue anyone if the idea is run with. In fact, I’ll be ecstatic. Here it is: Broadcast networks have long struggled with what to air in the summer. They also rerun most shows through March and into April. Why not pick one of those two times and air lots of pilots that they are considering picking up?
There are so, so many benefits to this idea. For the networks, they get to make use of money already spent. They get to find out ahead of time what people think. They can drive up viewership at a time when not as many people are tuning in. For the people at home, they get to play an active part in the development of the fall slate. Don’t like what’s on? You can’t complain if you didn’t participate.
The set up would be simple for the digital age. The networks spend a couple of weeks airing the many, many dramas and sitcoms they have made first episodes for. Not only can ratings be taken into account, but so can reactions. Apps can be launched for instant feedback. This plays to the young demo, which is what advertisers want, anyway. In a perfect world, there may even be some way for audiences to offer suggestions for improvement, and the networks to pick the best ones moving forward. Buzz will build before fall premieres. What an exciting event that would be!
Now, there could be an argument against such populist sentiment, as the highest quality programming doesn’t always translate to mass appeal. But our current system of ratings being a big deciding factor already runs this way. And studio bosses could still choose to push ahead with their favorite efforts.
This isn’t a perfect suggestion, of course, but I do think it’s better than the way things currently work. After all, wouldn’t NBC have liked to have known ahead of time that no one wanted to watch The Playboy Club? It could have saved them money in the long run.
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