Unsold Pilots on Television, 1967-1989
1956-1966 | 1967-1989
Dozens of television pilots are produced each year. These test episodes are used to sell potential programs to advertisers and networks but most of them aren’t picked up and aren’t turned into weekly series. What happens to an unsold pilot? Most are never heard of again. But the costs of making a pilot are high and starting in the mid-1950s it was commonplace for the networks to run summer replacement series made up entirely of unsold pilots. By the end of the 1980s, however, the practice of regularly scheduling unsold pilots during the summer had all but died out. Read about nine such programs, including Just for Laughs, Comedy Theatre, Comedy Time and CBS Summer Playhouse, aired between 1967 and 1989.
Note: Refer to Unsold Pilots on Television, 1956-1966 for information on how unsold pilots were first used as summer replacement series in the 1950s.
A summer replacement for The Carol Burnett Show, this series only managed to air seven episodes over the course of twelve weeks due to pre-emptions for sporting events, political conventions and one special. Premiere debuted on Monday, July 1st and ran from 10-11PM. The first unsold pilot was titled “Call to Danger” and starred James Gregory and Peter Graves as special agents charged with finding the plates used to print the $10 bill (they were stolen). The following week, Burt Reynolds starred in “Lassiter” as a magazine writer working on an expose about vice.
Other pilots included “Braddock,” with Tom Sicoe as a private detective searching for the missing component to a laser; “The Search,” with Mark Miller as a detective from the States working in London; and “Higher and Higher, Attorneys at Law” with Dustin Hoffman as a district attorney (it also starred Sally Kellerman, Robert Foster, Alan Alda, Barry Morse and Marie Masters). Six of the seven episodes were hour-long dramas. The August 12th broadcast included two sitcom pilots aired back to back: “Out of the Blue” with Shirley Jones as an alien sent to observe Earth culture and “Operation Greasepaint” with Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber as entertainers in France during World War II.
Premiere was pre-empted on August 12th, August 19th, August 26th and September 2nd. It was last seen on September 9th.
Comedy Playhouse premiered on Sunday, August 1st and ran from 8-8:30PM. Janet Leigh starred in first pilot as a soap opera actress who, in real life, is married to a doctor. Her two “lives” become confusing. Other pilots included “Elke,” with Elke Sommer as a German woman married to a doctor whose family believes she only married him for his money and the opportunity to become a citizen of the United States; “An Amateur’s Guide to Love,” with Rose Marie, Michael Landon, Dick Martin and Peter Marshall in a hidden camera show; and “Shepherd’s Flock” with Kenneth Mars as a former football player who becomes a minister.
President Nixon pre-empted the August 15th broadcast; that episode, “The Phil Silvers Show” (aka “Eddie”) was seen on September 5th as the final broadcast. Silvers starred as Eddie Skinner, a security guard for a gated community who gets to live the life of a millionaire thanks to his employees. Patricia Barry co-starred.
This series ran for just four weeks from August 8th to August 29th on Thursdays from 8:30-9PM; one of the four pilots actually managed to make it to the air. Frank Sutton, Cloris Leachman, and Dick Van Patten starred in the first pilot, “Ernie, Madge, and Artie. Sutton and Leachman were a newly married while Van Patten was the spirit of Leachman’s first husband. The other unsold pilots were “Ann in Blue” with Penny Fuller, Marybeth Hurt, Mary Elaine Monte and Hattie Winston as police officers stuck doing public relations work and “The Barbara Eden Show” with Barbara Eden as a soap opera writer.
The remaining pilot, “The Life and Times of Capt. Barney Miller,” would eventually become ABC’s Barney Miller. It starred Hal Linden as a captain of detectives whose wife, played by Abby Dalton, wants him to quit and find a safer (and better paying) job.
Comedy Theatre was first seen in 1976 and then again in 1979. During the 1976 season a pair comedy pilots were broadcast during each episode. Thus, a total of 12 pilots were shown during the 1976 season over the course of six episodes. The series premiered on Monday, July 26th and ran from 8-9PM. The first two pilots were “Ace” with Bob Dishy as a bungling detective and “The Bureau” with Henry Gibson and Barbara Rhoades as the chief of and an agent for a secret government agency called the Bureau.
Other pilots broadcast during the first season included “The Cheerleaders,” with Kathleen Cody, Teresa Medaris and Debbie Zipp as cheerleaders trying to join an exclusive high school club in the 1950s; “Flannery and Quilt,” with Harold Gould and Red Buttons as widowers living in the same house who can’t agree on a single thing yet somehow get along; “Newman’s Drugstore,” with Herschel Bernardi as the owner of a small drugstore in the 1930s with money troubles; “Roxy Page,” with Janice Lynde as an actress who wants to be on Broadway whose family doesn’t; and “Local 306,” with Eugene Roche as a plumber promoted to the chief of his union who fears flying. The season finale was broadcast on September 6th.
Comedy Theatre returned for its second season on Thursday, May 24th, 1979. It was now a half-hour series running from 8:30-9PM with a single comedy pilot shown each week. The first pilot, “Car Wash,” was based on the 1976 movie and starred Danny Aiello, Stuard Pankin and Hilary Beane. Other pilots included “Heaven on Earth,” with Donna Ponteretto and Carol Wayne as young women who wind up in Heaven accidentally and are returned to Earth to do good; “Mother and Me, M.D.” with Rue McClanahan and Leah Ayres as mother and daughter doctors working at the same hospital; and “Faculty Lounge,” with Arte Johnson, Rose Marie, Larry Storch (and others) as teachers at a high school who suddenly find themselves on strike.
The final episode of Comedy Theatre aired on June 28th, 1979. One pilot, “Uptown Saturday Night” with Cleavon Little and Francesca Roberts, was scheduled to air on June 21st but was pulled the weekend before for an unknown reason.
This half-hour series had an interesting broadcast history. It premiered on Wednesday, July 6th, 1977 running from 9:30-10PM. During its third week on the air it became a twice-weekly series, with two sitcom pilots shown on Thursdays from 8-9PM. After being pre-empted during the first three weeks of August, Comedy Time returned for an additional two weeks airing only on Thursdays. All told, 12 episodes were broadcast. The premiere pilot, “The Natural Look,” starred Barbara Feldon as a cosmetics executive and Bill Bixby as her pediatrician husband.
The first Thursday broadcast consisted of a two-part pilot for a comedy series to be titled “Hollywood High,” with Annie Potts and Darrin O’Connor as high school students Paula and Eugene. In the first part, while working on an assignment for the school paper, the two find themselves sharing an apartment. In the second part, Paula tries to get Eugene a date with a popular girl by writing a paper for her.
Other pilots included “Bay City Amusement Company,” with Terry Kiser as the top executive at a television station in San Francisco; “The Rubber Gun Squad,” with Lenny Baker and Andy Romano as inept police officers trying to protect Central Park without guns; “Daughters,” with MIchael Constantine as a police chief raising three daughters on his own; and “Instant Family” with William Daniels and Lou Criscuolo as bachelors living in the same house trying to raise their sons their own ways. The final two pilots were shown on September 1st.
This NBC series, like the similarly named Comedy Theatre, broadcast sitcom pilots. It premiered on Friday, July 17th, 1981 and ran from 8:30-9PM. The first pilot, “Dear Teacher,” starred Melinda Culea as a teacher who learns the man she’s dating (played by Ted Danson) is the father of the most troublesome student in her class. Other pilots included “Pals,” with Jeffrey Tambor and Tony Lo Bianco as brothers-in-law who travel to Mexico to purchase a painting; “Two Reelers,” with Radger Bumpass and Stephen Furst as tourists who find themselves in the middle of a revolution and help take a coffee shop and its waitress (played by Penny Peyser) hostage; and “Wendy Hooper, U.S. Army” with Wendy Holcombe as a member of the Army Signal Corps.
The final episode was broadcast on August 28th.
CBS used this series as summer filler for three consecutive seasons during the late 1980s, mixing hour-long dramas and half-hour sitcoms (two each episode) for a total of 47 pilots. During the summer of 1987 it was seen on Fridays from 8-9PM and, over the course of 13 weeks, aired 18 pilots. The premiere installment, broadcast on June 12th, was an attempted remake of “The Saint” starring Andrew Clark as Simon Templar. Other pilots included “Mabel and Max,” with Geraldine Fitzgerald and Mary B. Ward as actresses living in a New York City apartment; “Day to Day,” with Linda Purl, Deborah Harmon and Noelle Parker as sisters living together; “Sons of Gunz,” with Kenneth McMillan as a car salesman whose three sons work for him; and “Infiltrator” with Scott Bakula as a scientist who gains superhuman abilities thanks to a “molecular teleportation” accident.
CBS Summer Playhouse returned on Tuesday, June 21st, 1988 with a special two-hour pilot called “My Africa,” with Carl Weintraub as a doctor working in Kenya whose children come to live with him after his ex-wife dies. It ran from 8-10PM; the regular time slot was 8-9PM. Other pilots included “Dr. Paradise,” with Sally Kellerman as a doctor whose brother owns a tropical resort (he’s also a doctor); “Roughhouse,” with Ronny Cox and Robert Prescott as construction workers; “Old Money,” with Carolyn Seymour as a wealthy countess; and “Sniff,” with Robert Wuhl as a reporter whose dog is a talented partner. The season finale aired on September 6th.
During the summer of 1989 CBS Summer Playhouse was once again seen on Tuesdays. The third season premiered on June 20th. The first pilot, “Microcops,” starred William Bumiller and Shanti Owen as tiny intergalactic police officers on the trail of a nasty bad guy played by Page Moseley. Also appearing in the pilot were Peter Scolari and Lucinda Jenney. Other pilots included “Elysian Fields,” with Jeffrey De Munn, Frances Fisher and James Borders as residents of a boarding house in New Orleans; “Outpost,” with Joanna Going as a police officer on a distant colony; “Shivers,” with Lesley-Anne Down as a sexy ghost who doesn’t want anyone living in her house; and “Coming to America,” based on the 1988 film of the same name with Tommy Davidson as Prince Tariq (the brother of King Akeem, the character played by Eddie Murphy in the movie).
The final episode aired on August 22nd.
CBS Summer Playhouse was the last regularly-scheduled summer series to burn off unsold pilots. By the mid-1980s, the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) were seeing increasing summer competition from the number of viewing options available. But the main problem was cable. In July 1985, Harvey Shephard, CBS vice president for programming, pointed out that “in the last two seasons, the cable companies have recognized the fact that the networks — and the independent stations as well — are vulnerable. They’ve saved a lot of ther stronger films for summer and the netowrk shares have declined significantly” . ABC Entertainment president Lew Erlicht, who was also in charge of programming for ABC, felt certain the networks were going to be providing “more and more original programming in the summer” .
CBS Broadcast Group’s research senior vice president David Poltrak agreed that something had to change. “There is a continuing increase in the number of channels people can get. We’re pedaling harder to stand still — to maintain our position — and we’re not getting any further up the hill. We’re going to have to give them a better product just to hold on to our share” [“3]. That better product meant more original programming. By August 1986, NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff was championing the concept of the 52-week season, suggesting first that summer was “the time when you can try new producers and new writers because the stakes are smaller” and second that “if you’re having trouble with a certain show you can warm up the time period while the competition is at half-mast” . Tartikoff argued that the television landscape was in flux and that if the networks didn’t embrace the concept of original summer programming, someone else would. The launch of FOX as the fourth network in 1987 only added more competition to the Big Three.
CBS decided to embrace the unsold pilot as original programming and broadcast CBS Summer Playhouse during the summers of 1987, 1988 and 1989 (as described above). But it was the last gasp of a once common network practice. Although the networks knew they had to provide some incentive to viewers to keep them from turning to cable, original summer programming remained fairly week going into the 1990s. And Tartikoff’s 52-week schedule never took off. Still, unsold pilots would continue to be broadcast irregularly during the summer months throughout the decade. ABC aired three during July 1995 alone (“Philly Heat,” “The Last Days of Russell” and “Time Well Spent”). By the turn of the century, however, seeing an unsold pilot on television had become very rare.
1956-1966 | 1967-1989
3 Hanauer, Joan. “Check summer television fare.” United Press International. Modesto Bee. 9 Jul. 1985: C-5.
4 Buck, Jerry. “52-Week Season Eyed.” Associated Press. Ocala Star-Banner TVWeek [Ocala, FL]. 2 Aug. 1986: 24.
Originally Published July 23rd, 2009
Last Updated February 16th, 2017