Most Recent Backdoor Pilot?

Tonight from 8-10PM NBC will broadcast The Jensen Project, a made-for-TV movie produced by Walmart and Procter & Gamble (which apparently goes by P&G these days) that will be available on DVD tomorrow exclusively at Walmart. According to Variety, the two companies purchased the entire two-hour block of time on NBC, which otherwise has nothing to do with the project. However, if it does well enough NBC could use it to launch a weekly series.

A similar made-for-TV movie, Secrets of the Mountain, aired on Friday, April 7th. So is this a true backdoor pilot or just a one-off telefilm that could possibly result in a television series if, against all odds, it does incredibly well in the ratings? I’m inclined to say it isn’t really a pilot of any sort. It’s just a two-hour advertisement for the DVD Walmart will begin selling tomorrow.

So what was the most recent backdoor pilot to be aired on one of the networks? Made-for-TV movies are rare enough as it is these days, primarily confined to Hallmark Hall of Fame and the Jesse Stone series, both on CBS. Off the top of my head, I’d say NBC’s Knight Rider, which aired on February 17th, 2008, is the most recent backdoor pilot. It led to a short-lived weekly series that aired during the 2008-2009 season. The most recent backdoor pilot that didn’t result in a weekly series might be NBC’s Homeland Security, which aired in April 2004. Prior to that were The Lone Ranger on The WB, broadcast in February 2003, and War Stories on NBC, broadcast in January of 2003.

Somewhat more common these days are pilot episodes that air as episodes of another program like the two-part episode of JAG that led to NCIS and the two-part episode of NCIS that led to NCIS: Los Angeles. If made-for-TV movies were more profitable, I’m sure we’d see them more often. Like the miniseries, however, it seems the networks have all but surrendered the made-for-TV movie to cable.

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5 Replies to “Most Recent Backdoor Pilot?”

  1. Very few unbought pilots, backdoor or otherwise are broadcast anymore, and that trend seems to go back to the turn of the Millenium. And I can’t figure out why they’ve stopped airing them altogether, either. They tended to rate in line with series repeats, and provided some cost recovery against development costs from advertiser buys, especially for those ‘Summer Theatre’ type umbrellas.

    I don’t have them coded well in my database, so it would take time to come up with a comprehensive list, but here are a few off the top of my head to go together with your list:

    THE JENSEN PROJECT backdoor telemovie pilot (NBC OAD: Fri.Jul.16/10, ?)
    ‘Criminal Minds: Suspect Behaviour’ backdoor spinoff pilot (CBS OAD: Wed.Apr.07th, 7.9HH/13%, 3.5 A18-49, 12,700,000 viewers)
    SECRETS OF THE MOUNTAIN backdoor telemovie pilot (NBC OAD: Fri.Apr.16/10, 4.7HH/9%, 1.3 A18-49, 7,840,000 P2+)

    VIRTUALITY backdoor telemovie (FOX OAD: Fri.Jun.26/09, 1.2HH/2%, 0.5 A18-49, 1,730,000 P2+)
    ‘Glee’ pilot (FOX OAD: Tue.May.19/09, 5.6HH/9%, 3.9 A18-49, 9,620,000 P2+)
    ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ backdoor spinoff pilot (CBS OAD: Tue.Apr.28/09, 10.1HH/16%, 3.5 A18-49, 16,700,000 P2+)
    ‘Gossip Girl: Lily’ backdoor spinoff pilot (THE CW OAD: Mon.May.11/09, 1.6HH/3%, 1.2 A18-49, 2,300,000 P2+)
    ‘Rosie Live’ pilot (NBC, OAD: Wed.Nov.26/08, 3.5HH/6%, 1.2 A18-49, 5,020,000 P2+)

    KNIGHT RIDER backdoor telemovie pilot (OAD:Sun.Feb.17/08, 7.1HH/11%, 5.0 A18-49, 12,720,000 P2+)

    ‘Grey’s Anatomy: Private Practice’ backdoor spinoff pilot (ABC OAD: Thu.May.03/07, 13.4HH/21%, 9.1 A18-49, 21,230,000 P2+)



    ‘CSI Miami: MIA/NYC Non-Stop’ (CSI:NY) backdoor spinoff pilot (CBS OAD: Mon.May.17/04, 14.7HH/24%, 23,100,000 P2+)
    HOMELAND SECURITY (OAD: Apr.11/04, 5.6HH/9%, 8,800,000 P2+)

    ‘Jag: Ice Queen – Pt.1’ (NCIS) backdoor spinoff pilot (OAD: Tue.Apr.22/03, 9.3HH/15%, 13,800,000 P2+)
    THE LONE RANGER (The WB, OAD: Tue.Feb.26/03, 3.4HH/5%)
    WAR STORIES (NBC, OAD: Wed.Jan.29/03, 5.3HH/8%, 7,700,000 P2+)

    ‘CSI: Cross Jurisdictions (CSI:Miami)’ backdoor spinoff pilot (CBS, OAD: Thu.May.09/02, 14.5HH/25%, 27,100,000 P2+)

  2. Of course, one observation of the fairly measly list that I’ve put together with RJ’s help is that there were probably weeks, back in the ’70s, where the three networks of that time aired more backdoors and pilots in a single week than did the six major broadcasters in a whole decade.

    The six modern-era networks must be so rich that they don’t need to recover any of their development dollars by airing unbought pilots. Times have sure changed because their ’70s counterparts aired almost all of their development output and never had difficulty lining up advertisers to sponsor the time.

  3. “THE JENSEN PROJECT” IS a pilot for a projected series- and because Walmart and Procter & Gamble [their production company, Procter & Gamble Productions, Inc., produced the daytime soap operas they primarily sponsored, of which the last, “AS THE WORLD TURNS”, ends this September] produced and sponsored it as a “package deal”, literally buying the time from NBC to schedule it {as most advertisers did when sponsoring a single program in the days of network radio and early network TV}, they expected a strong “family audience” tuned in to see it- and buy the DVD in Walmart stores as well- to warrant production of a weekly series. But showing it on a FRIDAY night, on NBC? That’s one of the network’s “weakest” evenings these days. Nothing has really “stuck to the wall” for them on Fridays over the past several years; that’s why they usually schedule two hours of “DATELINE” as “filler”, because it’s “cheap”, it’s produced by NBC News, and often features lurid crime and murder stories (a la CBS’ “48 HOURS MYSTERY”) to fill the time….hardly a way to support an evening of “family-oriented” programming, like “THE JENSEN PROJECT”. But, who knows? I would have chosen Wednesday or Thursday night to “preview” it- but that’s “NBC’s turf” these days, such as it is.

    Networks haven’t shown half-hour or hour-long pilots on a regular basis during the summer since 1995-’96, because they’re afraid viewers won’t watch them, preferring to schedule the same gruel they fill the regular season with…or, these days, “reality” and “stunt” shows. That also coincided with the FCC relaxing the “fin-syn” rules concerning ownership and distribution of TV shows by the networks in 1996: today, 90% of all prime-time shows are owned outright by the networks or co-produced by them. So why should they “burn off” unsold pilots when they have their own inventory to recycle during the summer?

  4. Barry I. Grauman Says:
    July 17th, 2010 at 2:51AM
    So why should they “burn off” unsold pilots when they have their own inventory to recycle during the summer?
    I would argue that there is even more reason to broadcast pilots today than in the past:

    1. development cost recovery (same as always, even with fin-syn abolished).
    2. ability to leverage web for feedback…back in the 50s-90s, there was no ability to gather post pilot-viewing impressions and buzz…today, there are a myriad of reliable datapoints.
    3. provides variety in stale summer line-ups (I would agree with you that we now have either encores or reality/stunting programming choices).
    4. focus groups don’t mirror the way people watch tv anymore (originally, f.g. testing replicated typical viewer patterns, gathering with family on a sofa…todays viewer is more likely to watch alone and multitask with laptops, cellphones and other distractions…f.g.’s have no way to replicate these distractions, in fact, they eliminate them i.e. no cells).
    5. the best way to gauge the receptiveness of a niche is to test it out with as much of that niche as possible. Tryout a new comedy pilot after an established comedy, or a new drama after an existing one, and watch the quarter-hourly trends in your target demos. Essentially, this is how they assess series premieres, but you can better pick series winners and losers by testing your pilots in the January-April period instead of waiting until September preems.
    6. new and innovative is difficult for focus groups…only once in my career did I rely entirely on a focus group, and they completely misled me because they had difficulty understanding something completely new to them. It is very hard to replicate in focus groups the influence of opinion leaders and early adopters towards shaping opinions and willingness to try amongst the perplexed.

    I think a big competitive advantage and opportunity to gain ground and separate from the pack exists for the first network to go back to the old model of widespread viewer testing of new shows/concepts.

  5. Re: Why the networks no longer run unsold pilots.

    I remember reading an interview with Carroll O’Connor in which he said that he shot several pilots in the years between ALL IN THE FAMILY and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, and that none of them was ever broadcast, because his contract forbade that. As far he was concerned, the purpose of a pilot was to sell a series, and a pilot that did not sell was a failure, and he saw no value in making his failures public. (This may explain why, in his autobiography, he devotes a couple of pages to insisting that his TV-movie BRASS was not a pilot, despite it being reported as such.)

    I wonder if other actors (and perhaps some producers) have been including the same provision in their contracts. To be sure, it would be only the biggest names that could insist on that, but then those would be the pilots the networks would most like to run. This might explain why we are not seeing, for example, the Matthew Broderick pilot that was recently passed on.

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