August 31, 2011

THE SKED: A Word About Put Pilots

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Written by: Mitch Salem


The network development season for shows that would go to series in 2012-13 is in full gear, and that means an avalanche of press releases and trade reports that describe many of the deals as “put pilots.”  In recent weeks, Stephen Gaghan, Josh Friedman, Sarah Silverman, Shawn Ryan, Ryan Reynolds, and Greg Berlanti are just a few of the creators who have received these precious deals.  But what are put pilots?  And more to the point, do they really exist?
The general concept of a “put,” of course, comes from the world of finance, where a put option is one that, once exercised by a seller, requires the buyer to complete the purchase.  In the world of television, that translates into the idea that a put pilot is one a network is absolutely obligated to produce, despite the fact that when the deal was made, the script hadn’t yet even been written.  In other words, no matter how dreadful the network ultimately considers the script to be, they have no choice but to hire a cast, director, etc and fully produce (and pay for) the show.  
Well, no.  Not really.  The truth is that a network is never obligated to produce or air anything:  virtually every agreement that a network enters into has a standard paragraph that says it’s the network’s ultimate decision whether to go forward with the show.  
But if you can’t really force a network to produce a pilot, what does a “put” accomplish?  In reality, a “put pilot” deal is an obligation to pay money:  it imposes a penalty on the network for its refusal to produce that is supposed to be so high, the network will decide it might as well go ahead and produce the show after all.  At the highest levels, such a penalty could theoretically equal the actual cost of producing the pilot, but that rarely, if ever, happens.  The real target number is the license fee that the network would pay the studio for the pilot, had it been produced (very roughly, perhaps 2/3 of the production cost), but even that is extremely rare, and usually happens only as the result of a brutally competitive battle among networks for the project.  (Or a network so desperate to avoid such a competition that they preemptively overpay.)  The majority of “put pilots” are simply large penalties of several hundred thousand dollars–enough to make the network wince, and maybe push a borderline project toward a green-light, but not the same amount as they’d pay for a fully-produced pilot.  
What, then, is the difference between a “put pilot” and a “pilot deal with a pretty big penalty”?  Not very much:  in the logic of Hollywood, a deal described as “put” usually has a higher penalty (and more aggressive representation) than one that simply has a “penalty.”  Big names want their deals described as “puts” whenever possible, because it makes them sound more important, and networks don’t typically care all that much as long as the label doesn’t cost them anything. 

All of which is a long way of saying:  don’t set your DVRs just yet for all those high-profile pilots whose deals are being announced.  Whatever the publicists may say, a project–put or not–isn’t real until someone turns on the camera.

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."