The Back-Door onto PrimeTime

Patricia Arquette, right, stars in CSI: Cyber, a backdoor pilot which aired on CSI, which features Elisabeth Shue (left)
Patricia Arquette, right, stars in CSI: Cyber, a backdoor pilot which aired on CSI, which features Elisabeth Shue (left)

Last week, CBS picked up two series for next fall — CSI: Cyber and NCIS: New Orleans — that were shot as so-called “back-door pilots,” embedded in episodes of existing series. CSI:Cyber aired as an episode of CSI and NCIS: New Orleans aired as an episode of NCIS (which, itself, began as a back-door pilot as an episode of JAG).

A back-door pilot is a way to save money on making a pilot, a sample episode of a proposed TV series. Since standalone pilots that don’t lead to a seires cost millions of dollars, have no commerical value, and will usually never air anywhere, shooting them as an episode of an existing series allows studios to recoup their costs from the syndication revenue of a hit series. It’s a practice that has been going on for fifty years — The Andy Griffith Show began as a back-door pilot episode of The Danny Thomas Show.

The problem is, backdoor pilots usually end up being one of the worst episodes of whatever series is hosting them. That’s because the stars of the host series, by design, have to take a back seat to the stars of the pilot…and let’s face it, people aren’t tuning in to see the pilot characters, they are tuning in to see the characters they already know and love.  Star Trek ended it’s second season with Assignment Earth, a back-door pilot starring Robert Lansing, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended it’s second season with a back-door pilot for a series with Bill Daily. Both pilots failed to sell.

The networks and producers can’t really disguise backdoor pilots — because they can’t function as pilots without being pilots, introducing us to the characters and franchise of the proposed show. But it’s a practice that has worked.

Some of hit shows that began as backdoor pilots (also known, some years back, as “nested spin-offs”) include Diagnosis Murder, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Maude, SWAT, Petticoat Junction, Laverne  & Shirley, Barnaby Jones, Empty Nest, Knots Landing, and Stargate: Atlantis.

The many, many shows that have hosted one or more backdoor pilots include Magnum PI, Cosby, Spenser: For Hire, Star Trek, Vegas, Bones, Married With Children, Gunsmoke, The Practice, Charlie’s Angels, Barnaby Jones, NCIS, Ironside, Criminal Minds, Murder She Wrote, Smallville, House and The Rockford Files (which had four of’em!). Back in the day, anthology shows like Zane Grey Theater, Dick Powell Theater, and Police Story (which begat Police Woman, Joe Forrester and David Cassidy: Man Undercover)  were often used for back-door pilots.

Bill Rabkin and I were the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder with Fred Silverman, the man who once ran CBS, ABC and NBC and was known as the “king of the spin-off.” Since Diagnosis Murder was a nested spinoff of Jake and the Fatman, which itself was a nested spin-off of Matlock, Silverman was a big believer in backdoor pilots and  insisted that we do at least one every season. Diagnosis Murder tried at least six of them that I know of and they all went nowhere.

We personally did three of them, including Whistlers, basically a tame Lethal Weapon with women, and The Chief, starring Fred Dryer as the leader of the LAPD. Here’s  the main title sequence for Whistlers:

and the sales pitch for The Chief:


We were very clever with how we structured The Chief as a back-door pilot…and it was the only one of the Diagnosis Murder backdoor pilots that actually had a shot getting picked up.

We wrote it as a tw0-hour, sweeps episode of the series…but crafted it in such a way that we could edit it down to one-hour and cut almost all of the Diagnosis Murder cast out of the show for internal sales purposes

Fred Dryer was great in the part…and newcomer Neal McDonough had real star power (since proven on Band of Brothers, Justified, Desperate Housewives, etc.). We were sure we were on to something. The two-hour movie was one of the highest rated shows of the week, #12 if memory serves, and when we had the one-hour version tested, the scores were among the best Fred Silverman had ever seen. Silverman was convinced we were a lock for the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, this was one of the rare cases where ratings and testing didn’t mean as much to the network as personality…nobody at CBS wanted to work with Fred Dryer (which begs the question, why did CBS let us cast him, and why did they pay the  “pilot breakage” on his salary for the guest shot, if they had no intention of greenlighting a series with him in the lead?).

But Silverman wasn’t concerned. With the numbers and testing we had, and with Dryer’s successful track record with the hit series Hunter, he was convinced we’d have a sale in a matter of weeks with another network.  

We took it to every network and pitched it face-to-face to their presidents (that was the power of working with Silverman), and every one of them had some personal reason for not wanting to be in business with Dryer…and seemed to take great pleasure in passing on the project in the room to his implacable face.

As it turned out, a couple of years later CBS did a very simlar show (The District) with great success and a star reportedly as difficult as Dryer reportedly was (Craig T. Nelson)…and NBC ended up reviving Hunter for six episodes and discovered, or so we heard, that Dryer was even more reportedly difficult than he’d ever reportedly been before.

I guess we dodged a bullet.

15 thoughts on “The Back-Door onto PrimeTime”

  1. Really fascinating, Lee. Hollywood is such a tough place. I don’t mean to say the people are all run amok, or that they are nitwits, jerks, self-servers, any of that, for I know there are terrific folk there you’d want in your family and circle of friends. It’s just that fear takes over; jeopardy hovers, and people react in sometimes stupid ways. I’ll say this: Any studio that missed out on having you on board for anything missed out on a super deal!

      • If I may be so bold:

        Actually, Richie Brockelman was introduced in a movie, “The Missing 24 Hours,” which was pretty obviously a pilot. A couple of weeks before the subesquent series began, he appeared in an episode of “The Rockford Files,” but that was surely just a case of cross-promotion rather than of spinning off. (The IMDb provides these dates: “The Missing 24 Hours” was broadcast on October 27, 1976; the “Rockford Files” episode was broadcast on February 24, 1978; the first episode of “Richie Brockelman, Private Eye” was broadcast on March 17, 1978.)

        Or do you refer to Brockelman’s second appearance on “Rockford Files,” a year after his series had ended? I suppose that could have been a pilot for a revival.

        I recall that during the WGA strike of 1988, when the networks considered making new productions from old scripts, there was brief talk of a “Richie Brockelman” revival. The idea seems to have been that, as so few people had watched the show originally, it would be a brand new Steven Bochco series for most viewers, at a time when Bochco was the biggest name in TV drama. However, nothing came of that.

        As for backdoor pilots in “The Rockford Files,” what about the episode with Stefanie Powers as a private detective? That certainly seemed to be setting her up for further appearances, though the idea may have been a recurring character rather than a spin-off.

  2. Great post, Lee. Love this stuff.

    Since you mentioned NCIS, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that NCIS: LA had another back-door pilot just last season for a series to be called: NCIS: RED. It was to star John Corbett (Chris, the radio-station guy from Northern Exposure) about a mobile task-force with a folding pop-up headquarters like something out of the 1970s GI Joe Adventure Team. All the early buzz I heard was that it was solid for a pickup, but CBS passed at the last minute.

    What’s interesting is that the fancy interior set for the headquarters (which probably cost a pretty penny, already spent) was redressed and has been used for most of this season of NCIS LA as an NCIS outpost in Afghanistan, in a B-plot intended to cover actress Daniela Ruah’s pregnancy (conveniently trading her usual tight tops and jeans for lots of heavy winter parkas).

    Being a show-runner has got to be somewhere between being a circus ringmaster, a high-school principle, and a master chess player. I like to watch a slick maneuver like this one pulled off.

  3. For some odd reason, “lady cop” shows don’t seem to have a long shelf life. “Rizzoli and Iles” was a surprising exception. I guess it’s because both lead characters weren’t cops or the TV show focused more on their separate interactions with men than shows like “Cagney & Lacey” did. How was “Whistlers” knocked off the rails?

  4. A lifetime of TV watching has made me an aficionado of back-door pilots; so was my late father, who pointed some of the earliest ones out to me when I was a kid.
    Take it from me – nobody is “fooled” by these
    When I stated reading TV GUIDE, I was always on the lookout for “test films”, on anthologies like GE Theatre, or as episodes of regular series; TVG was scrupulous about identifying such shows, and often I actually looked forward to seeing them (remember, of course, that this was when TV GUIDE was actually informative).

    A few weeks back, MeTV ran an Ironside episode that was a BDP for a would-be series that would have starred Desi Arnaz as Dr. Domingo, a small-town GP who doubled as the local medical examiner/coroner.
    The usual gimmicks: Dr. D was a Cuban refugee from Castro, had the thick accent that nobody understood, drove an Edsel. etc.
    As a civilian viewer, I knew that it most likely wouldn’t sell, but I got a kind of kick out of it anyway; Arnaz looked pretty good (I’d heard he was having health problems), and the time seemed right for a comeback, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

    I could probably give you a bunch of other examples, but this is the one I thought of.

    • You’re right about DR. DOMINGO. You can find it, and many others, in my books UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS Vol 1 and Vol 2.

      IRONSIDE had at least two others, both of which led to short-lived series: AMY PRENTISS and SARGE.


      • In which I make really bold …

        SARGE: THE BADGE AND THE CROSS was a stand-alone pilot film made in 1971.

        When NBC picked up the SARGE series, they ordered the crossover TV-movie THE PRIEST KILLER, adding IRONSIDE in service of that series’s timeslot change to Tuesday, where the two shows would run back-to-back.
        This move failed; at midseason SARGE was cancelled and IRONSIDE moved back to Thursday.

        You were right about AMY PRENTISS, though …

        • You’re right, my mistake. But I forgot to mention one other nested pilots in IRONSIDE…though it’s not as obvious as DR. DOMINGO and AMY PRENTISS were.

          FOREFRONT… culled from the episode “Split Second to Epitaph” featuring Joseph Cotton and Troy Donahue as a doctors.


          • Don’t Get Me Started Dept.

            I seem to recall that when NBC announced THE BOLD ONES, that Joseph Cotten was supposed to play the boss doctor in the medical segments. Cotton bailed and E.G. Marshall got the gig.
            It is a fact that Raymond Burr’s Harbour Productions produced that segment of the wheel, and Burr got a credit every week as a “consultant”.

            Oh and by the way –
            – in the IRONSIDE episode (which I caught on MeTV not long ago), Troy Donahue played a priest.
            Type casting, I know …

  5. While the concepts are similar, and both were produced by Cy Chermak and the same production company, the credited creators of the NEW DOCTORS segment of THE BOLD ONES (Steven Bochco, Paul Mason, Richard Landau) are not the same as the creators associated with FOREFRONT (DIck Nelson, Don Mankiewicz, and Sy Salkowitz).


  6. The reference to “Joe Forrester” being a spin-off of “Police Story” reminds me of a controversy back in the day. It seems that the “Forrester” pilot was actually produced as a movie-of-the-week, but then NBC decided it would get more attention if it were aired as an episode of the popular “Police Story.” This infuriated Joseph Wambaugh, the creator of “Police Story,” and he publicly threatened a lawsuit, but so far as I know nothing came of that.

    I wonder if this was the case with another “Police Story” episode, “The Cut Man Caper.” Like “The Return of Joe Forrester,” this was ninety minutes rather than the usual sixty, and it practically screamed “pilot.” (This was the one with Scoey Mitchell and Robert Hooks as detectives who, though they had different names, were obviously meant to be tamed-for-TV versions of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson–a comparison forced on the viewer by the fact that the cast also included Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques.)


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