Pilot Bait-and-Switch

I haven’t seen the new TNT series WANTED yet, but in today’s LA Times review, Paul Brownfield talks about the common practice of pilot bait-and-switch.

Television pilots, particularly the ones with action, are real productions these days, sometimes upward of $10-million affairs with chase scenes and blow-’em-ups and helicopter shots.

They’re like features — better than features since they last only an hour and there’s no mall parking. The bait and switch of these lavish premieres, of course, is that two or three episodes in, the big-name director that the producers got for the pilot is gone and the budget is pinched back,

The producers know that. The networks know that. And increasingly, the viewers know that, too. The problem is, a pilot isn’t entertainment. It isn’t the first episode of a series. What it is, first and foremost, is a sales tool aimed at the key decision makers at the network…perhaps a dozen people in a screening room.  The studio will do whatever it takes to wow them…and get on the schedule… then worry about the license fee and the deficit later.

But those worries will come… and when they do, the pilot that was filmed on location in New York moves to a warehouse in Vancouver, the big-name movie director who shot the pilot becomes a non-directing executive producer, and the stories become much smaller (and more produce-able in scope). THE FUGITIVE was one recent series that suffered from the pilot bait-and-switch and the network still couldn’t understand why viewers abandoned it. 

The question is if the producers/studios deliver a pilot that truly represents what they will actually be able to afford on a weekly episodic budget, will the network be wowed by what they see?  Probably not. So they go balls-out for the pilot — the 60-minute sales pitch — pretending that if the network likes it, they will cough up the bucks to deliver that same show every week. But both sides, buyer and seller, know that isn’t true. 

The downside is that viewers aren’t part of that tacit understanding. The audience tunes in for the pilot, which they don’t see as a sales tool. They see it as the first episode of a show they may, or may not, make time for every week. If they like the first episode, they will expect that show every week. If the viewers return and get a cheaper, less ambitious, show they will be disappointed and, in this highly competitive entertainment marketplace, won’t come back for episode three.

2 thoughts on “Pilot Bait-and-Switch”

  1. Amen Lee –
    I almost never watch original series in the first part of their run for the very reason you’ve stated . . . I don’t want to start a relationship only to see it waste away – because a tv habit is valuable time, it must be spent wisely (I’ve been planning on catching up to Lost on DVD, which I understand is well worth it) that’s what it’s all about anyway, right? Spending one’s time wisely.


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