June 20, 2011

THE SKED: A Word About Busted Pilots

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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“Busted” pilots, for those who don’t know, are simply the ones not ordered by their commissioning networks to series.  We’re going to start taking a look at some of last year’s busted pilots here at THE SKED, so it’s worth saying a couple of things about them.
First, not all busted pilots are terrible.  Sure, there are some that make you roll your eyes and mutter “What were they thinking?”, but plenty of them are perfectly decent. In fact, some will make you wonder–especially once you’ve seen the shows the network did order–why they aren’t getting on the air.  Sometimes a network deliberately orders several pilots in a specific genre (multi-camera family comedy, say, or medical drama), knowing in advance it will only need one of those shows and the others won’t be ordered, no matter how good they are.  More generally, the network’s decision can be due to a complicated mix of relationship issues, financial considerations, scheduling space, marketing strategies, and yes, networks being just plain stupid.   

Also, just because a pilot is busted doesn’t mean it’s dead.  The typical deal for a network pilot provides that the network has two “bites,” or options, to order the pilot to series in consecutive scheduling periods. So, for example, a pilot that was produced for Fall 2011 could be picked up either for Fall or for Midseason of the same broadcast season.  The network has several months to decide whether to exercise that 2d option, and additional pick-ups for this coming season may well be announced over the next weeks or months.  (Not to overcomplicate things, but one factor these days that lowers the number of pilots considered for 2d bite pick-ups is the way actor contracts are structured.  Very often, performers only receive part of their fees for the pilot itself, and get the rest if the network chooses to extend its hold over the actors for that additional 2d bite period, keeping them off the market.  Since networks prefer not to incur that–often hefty–additional cost, they tend to make use of those extensions only for shows in which they have a serious interest.)
Even if the commissioning network passes on both of its bites, the producers are free to bring the pilot to another network.  Last month the pilot for Ringer, with Sarah Michelle Gellar, was produced for CBS, but when CBS passed, it was brought to The CW, and that network put the show on its Fall schedule.  Admittedly, this was made easier by the fact that CBS and The CW have overlapping managements and CBS Studios was one of the show’s production companies (ABC Studios, which had been a co-producer, bailed out when the show switched networks, very possibly because The CW tends to pay lower series license fees than CBS).  But once CBS had passed, the Ringer producers could have brought the show to any other broadcast or cable network as well.
So busted pilots, which often feature A-level talent and sometimes have more provocative premises than shows that are getting on the air, are worth some attention.  And stay tuned:  we’ll be giving it to them.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."