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.

The Mail I Get Rerun – Stop Looking for a Short Cut

Here’s a golden oldie from yesteryear’s mailbag..

I received a polite email from a guy on the East Coast who says he has a great idea for an episodic legal drama:

Though I spend a great deal of my time developing and
selling creative concepts (for direct marketing applications), I’m not a script
writer.  I’m contacting you because I’m looking for a talented television writer
with industry credibility that might be interested in partnering to develop a
pilot. If you are interested in exploring this or know of a
writer who might be,  please let me know.

I get this offer several times a week from people outside the industry who have “great ideas” but just need a guy like me to partner up with.

To be blunt, why would I want to do that? What’s in it for me? I’ve got lots of ideas of my own and all you’d be doing is benefitting from my experience, my “industry credibility,”  and years of hard work. What do you bring to the table? An idea.  Sorry, but that’s not enough.

short-cut-mazeThere’s a saying in television, ideas are cheap and execution is everything. The networks  don’t buy ideas, they buy ability, experience, point-of-view, and a track record.  LOST is not a great idea — People shipwrecked on an island. It has been done a hundred times before. What ABC bought was hit-maker JJ Abrams doing people shipwrecked on an island.  NYPD BLUE is not a great idea. It’s cops in NY solving crimes. What ABC bought was Steven Bochco doing cops in NY solving crimes.  They also bought the proven ability of JJ Abrams and Steven Bochco to write and produce a series.

I know… that’s what you need me for, right? You need my “industry credibility” and “talent.”
But here’s the thing: there’s absolutely no upside in it for me, or any other established writer-producer, partnering up with you.  We didn’t work for years to establish “industry credibility” so someone else without any could take a shortcut and ride on our coat-tails.

If you were a bestselling novelist with an idea, that’s something else. You have something to offer beyond an idea.  You bring your name,  reputation, and proven track record as a storyteller. If you were a  famous actor, that’s something else. You bring your image,  your fans, and proven ability to draw a large audience.  If you were an ex-D.A., and your idea draws on your background in the field, then you have something to offer. You bring years worth of courtroom experience  and credibility in the field (for instance, I’ve partnered with cops before to pitch ideas based on their unique experiences).

I think you get my point.  Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m not interested.

That’s what I told him. Here’s his reply:

Feel the need to vent?  No problem!  Since we don’t each other, it can’t be
personal.  A simple, “not interested” would have done the trick though.
The television saying you mentioned….we say that same thing in
marketing and advertising!  Since I’m a professional in my chosen field too
(no, really), I receive numerous offers to partner from people looking to break
in.  Though it almost never goes anywhere, I usually offer some slight
encouragement.  The upside is so much greater than the downside and the cost to
let it play out is so insignificant… why not?

Instead of offering encouragement, I offer honesty and reality. Obviously, you didn’t want to hear either. You can’t expect to scrawl a drawing of a car on a napkin and sell it to Ford… why should you expect it to happen with a TV series idea? The way to break in is not to look for shortcuts, for a way to start at the top…which is what you are trying to do.  The way to break in is to write a terrific script, get hired as a freelancer on a show, get picked up on staff, then work your way up the writer/producer ladder until you reach the point in your career when someone from a studio or network calls and says “Hey, got any ideas for a series?”

As for the networks buying years of
experience and a track record……I sincerely hope that is true (means better
television).  The jury seems to be out though:  Overnight
successes…..Schwartz, who at 27 created The O.C….Trey Parker and Matt Stone
created South Park while they were still in college.

I figured that’s where you were coming from.  You didn’t do your homework.  Josh Schwartz worked on other shows and wrote other pilots before THE OC.  Parker and Stone made a short animated film, THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS,  that wowed the industry. That short film proved their skill as animators/writers/performers and  they got a series… based on that short film. They weren’t car salesmen from Topeka with a really great idea for an animated TV series.

What must I have been thinking when I contacted
you?  I mean…how on earth could a professional television writer really be
interested in what someone from outside the industry has to offer?
“. CSI, the No. 1 show was created by relative newcomer, Anthony
E. Zuiker…. CBS hired experienced writer-producers Carol Mendelsohn and Ann
Donahue to run the show…”

shortcutAgain, you aren’t doing your homework. Zuiker didn’t sell his idea by emailing producers with a come-on saying he had a great idea for a show and he just needed someone with “industry credibility” to sell it for him.  He wrote a script.  From the CSI Files Website:

Zuiker himself got his start when childhood friend Dustin Lee Abraham, now a CSI scribe but then an actor, would get Zuiker to
write him monologues for auditions. “I wrote a speech about a man, mentally
retarded, watching his wife give birth. He’s a degenerate gambler, and he went
into an announcing [mode, a play by play],” Zuiker says of the monologue that
got him attention in Hollywood. The speech was turned into a movie, The
, which was made for seven million dollars. It turned out to be
Zuiker’s gateway to Hollywood.

You’re wowed by what you think are strike-it-big-in-Hollywood-quick stories that really aren’t.  Stop looking for a short-cut.  The best way to sell a series is to write some great scripts. Don’t look for someone with “industry credibility,” earn some of your own instead.

UPDATE: 4/10/2014

Someone named Jerome read this post and actually sent me this question:

Hey Lee: I get where you are coming from regarding someone with what they believe is a great idea for a TV show wanting to partner up with you. But I wonder what if someone came to you with an idea that has never been done before in a TV show? And if that idea for a premise had never been done before and could be executed well then that may be a possible reason why someone would want to partner up with someone else? I guess I am saying this because whenever I hear many of the pilots that are going to premiere it is upon hearing the “premise” that I start to think this is another tired old idea that has been done before again and again.

This has to be a prank, right? I mean, how could anybody read this post and then send me that question? Assuming it’s not a prank, holy crap, some people are really DENSE. As I said before, ideas are cheap, execution is everything. A show about a cop teamed up with a robot has been done before. Many times. But Fox bought it because it was JJ Freaking Abrams who pitched it. They were buying him, and his team, not the idea. And JJ Freaking Abrams doesn’t need you to give him Your Idea For a Premise That Has Never Been Done Before. Because he’s JJ Freaking Abrams and can sell yet another show about a cop teamed with a robot without sharing a dime with you. Here’s his reply:

I get it ideas are cheap and though I wonder why NBC is launching that contest May 1st for anyone to enter in their “idea” for a sitcom and NBC will make and pay for numerous pilots from unknown unproven beginner people with no experience or credits?

There is a big difference between approaching a writer you dont know with your Idea For a Premise That Has Never Been Done Before and entering a contest hosted by a network…one presently mired at the bottom of the ratings and desperate for positive publicity. Let me ask you a question. Can you count how many times a network has had a contest soliciting sitcom ideas? I can. This is the one time. If I were you, I’d take advantage of it quick.