Backdoor Pilots

Jaime Weinman writes today in MacLeans about the network practice of using episodes of existing series as “backdoor pilots” for new shows. It’s a way to save money on making a pilot. Since standalone busted pilots cost millions of dollars, have no commerical value, and will 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. Tonight’s episode of BONES is one such episode.

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.  Weinman writes:

Networks and producers used to disguise the fact that that was what they were doing, because it might drive viewers away if they knew they were going to be watching a new hero. The usual spot to put this kind of episode was in the last episode of the season, which before the Season Finale concept took hold was often used for filler episodes: hence, Star Trek‘s Assignment Earth was the last episode of the second season, and Mary Tyler Moore ended its second season with a failed attempt to create a new show for Bill Daily.

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 busted, backdoor pilots include Magnum PI, Cosby, Spenser: For Hire, Star Trek, Vegas, Charlie’s Angels, Murder She Wrote, Smallville, House, and The Rockford Files (which had at least three!)

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 Neil McDonough had real star power. 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. 

9 thoughts on “Backdoor Pilots”

  1. Can a “backdoor pilot” also be a 2 hour MOW that might launch a new series? (and have nothing to do with any current series?). Just curious because I just heard that term the other day and it was in reference to a 2 hour movie that can stand alone, but has potential to launch into a series if it does well. (but wasn’t connected in any way to a current series).

  2. Sometimes it’s particularly fun to find these backdoor pilots in reruns, such as seeing the Golden Girls’ first Empty Nest pilot with Paul Dooley and Rita Moreno as his still-very-alive wife; the series title actually made sense then (the series ended up being Richard Mulligan as a widower whose daughters moved back in with him.)
    There are still enough coming on that are obvious (Dana Delaney on Castle – when someone shows up on a mystery who is super-competent and not a villain, it’s a backdoor pilot for sure!) that I’m left uncertain by other appearances – was Dan Aykroyd’s wacky judge on The Defenders a backdoor pilot? Prrrrrrobably, but I’m not certain.
    And isn’t Backdoor Pilot an adult film title? I mean, obviously, it should be.

  3. Sharlyn,
    They used to do two-hour, TV movie pilots all the time back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s…but that practice died for a number of reasons. For one thing, a two-hour movie pilot was something of a bait-and-switch…they always had more production value and action and better locales than a one-hour series could ever pull of. So the networks almost always got screwed on that score. And the networks stopped running movies…because they couldn’t compete production value, content, and stars in movies on HBO, or available for home video, etc…so they had no time-slots to run backdoor pilot movies. So this meant the end of the made-for-tv movies, except for occasional specials (and even those tended to be “based on a true story” or mini-series events worthy of pre-empting regular series, rather than back-door pilots). The only made-fors that CBS runs now are the Tom Selleck “Jesse Stone” movies which, essentially, a series of movies.

  4. I recall the original Girl From UNCLE pilot: The Project Moonglow Affair, with Norman Fell as Mark Slate (later played by Noel Harrison) and the delightful Mary Ann Mobley as April Dancer, later played by the equally delightful Stephanie Powers.
    MacGyver had at least TWO backdoor pilots for “The Coltons”. In the 2nd one the wonderful Della Reese joined the cast as Mama Colton, riding herd on sons Jesse, Frank & Billy, played by heavy hitters Richard Lawson, Cleavon Little, and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
    I’d have watched that one. Mr. Little looked AWESOME kicking butt in bounty hunter togs. 😉

  5. PN,
    There are countless examples…THE PERSUADERS began as a “nested pilot” in an episode of THE SAINT…with Stuart Damon in the Tony Curtis part.
    Some busted, backdoor pilots include…GANDALF & FITCH, an episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES that tried to spin-off a pairing of Lou Gossett and Isaac Hayes as private eyes. And STARSKY & HUTCH tried to spin-off Huggy Bear into his own show called “Huggy Bear & The Turkey” where he became, of course, a private eye.

  6. How did I ever miss those! LOL!
    Glad the Persuaders worked out. I had to get the DVD set. Roger Moore and Tony Curtis wrecking a bar based on whether to use one olive or two in a drink is not to be missed.
    Yes, the show was totally sexist and I DO wince, but OMG they were just gorgeous and it was clear they were having great fun.

  7. I love the Whistlers pilot and will always wish it had become a series…and wonder if it ever still would (i’m guessing unfortunately about 99.99% not).


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