Q & A: Commercial Testing with Unsold Pilots

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or even decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to pull out a few e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to enjoy. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.

I’m looking to (somehow) track down a copy of a pilot that may have never aired. I saw it back in the early to mid 80’s at a hotel in Maryland where a group of folks had been invited to watch and review two pilots and a bunch of TV commercials. The first show was The Ugily Family starring Al Molinaro (which was terrible) and the second was Bumpers, a Cheers-like show about working in a car wash. I and my two friends remember it being brilliantly written and quite funny (which is probably why it disappeared). I’d love to see it again but I can’t find any info on it anywhere. Any thoughts or ideas?

It was easy enough to track down information about these two pilots. “Bumpers,” produced by MTM Enterprises, was in contention for ABC’s 1977-1978 schedule but wasn’t picked up. Richard Masur starred as Joey Webber, a Detroit assembly-line worker who spent his days attached bumpers to cars. In the pilot, Joey gets a loan to help his wife Rozzie (played by Stephanie Farac) go to dental school but ends up giving the money to his recently homeless and unemployed brother Andy (played by Michael McManus), who moves in with Joey and Rozzie. The pilot aired on Monday, May 16th, 1977.

“The Ugily Family” was an ABC sitcom pilot developed for the 1979-1980 season. Produced by Paramount, it starred Al Molinaro as Sal Ugily, a blue collar worker who gets a promotion and moves his family from New Jersey to California. The humor was derived from the Ugily family (whose last name was often mispronounced) trying to adapt to their new surroundings and the new people they meet. Mimi Hines, Susan Elliot, Stephen Myers, and Bella Bruck also appeared in the pilot. It was not picked up but ABC aired it on Saturday, July 26th, 1980.

So the pilots were real. But I couldn’t find any evidence that “Bumpers” and “The Ugily Family” were screened as part of commercial testing focus groups in the early 1980s. The time frame didn’t seem to fit. “Bumpers” was from 1977. Why would it be used in the 1980s? At first, I assumed Scott was simply mistaken but he was certain he watched it after 1981 because he didn’t meet the friends he watched it with until then.

Eventually, I stumbled upon an August 1993 discussion in the ba.broadcast Usenet group that confirmed both “Bumpers” and “The Ugilily Family” were indeed used for many years by a company (or companies) doing commercial testing. Several people remembered watching both pilots and being asked about commercials. Such screenings took place all over the country, including Chicago and San Francisco.

Because the goal of these test screenings was to gauge reaction to commercials, the age of the pilot episode used wasn’t important. Hit the comments if you attended a focus group and watched either of these pilots. I wonder how recently they were being used.

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18 Replies to “Q & A: Commercial Testing with Unsold Pilots”

    1. I saw this program in 1980, I remember it being awful with the whole show hinging on their last name being mispronounced as “ugly” and there was some “disaster” with a girl’s hair being messed up by the Santa Ana winds. I have looked for this show or reference to it off and on just for my own amusement and am p!eased to see that it really was on tv and it wasnt a horrible hallucination, lol.

  1. I attended a commercial test-marketing program in the mid-’90s where they showed an unsold sitcom pilot with Sally Kellerman as a free spirited type and another actress (I forgot who) as her straight-laced sister. I remember thinking it looked old, like from the mid-’80s. This show doesn’t appear on Kellerman’s IMDB page and to my knowledge was never aired on network TV.

  2. I remember seeing The Ugily Family at a commercial-testing event in suburban Detroit in 1987. And I’m pretty sure I remember seeing it on ABC, too.

  3. I saw “The Ugily Family” as part of a TV commercial focus group in Toronto, in the mid 80s. Lyles Waggoner had a cameo in it.

  4. I saw the ugilies as a tv show. I was a kid and I never went to any commercial testing stuff. I saw this show at home. I remember the people always calling them Mr ugly, and that was always the joke. I remember we thinking why would they make a sitcom only based on tjay, but I was a kid. I don’t know why I looked this up, I just remembered that stupid show. As far as I remember, it was on tv. Maybe I only saw it once, I can’t remember. Hmmmm.

  5. Yes, both of these episodes were screened in Detroit in July 1981. My family attended these at Cobo Hall.

    I seem to remember The Ugily Family was originally going to be called The Ugilys, according to a brief mention in TV Guide in 1980 or 81.

    I remember both of these episodes, but recall nothing about any of the commercials.

  6. While I’ve never seen these pilots, either on tv or in any marketing ploy, I was conned into a different pilot viewing. It was in May 1999, and I was at Universal Studios Park in Orlando, when I saw a sign for “free tickets” to a show. I figured it was some kind of screening, so I thought I’d get at least some snacks, if not cash, for attending. I got neither. Instead I had to watch an hour-long pilot for a show called FALCONE, and I hated about every minute of it. It was about a bunch of gangsters, and I’ve never cared for anything making them (or any other criminals) protagonists. (I never watched THE SOPRANOS either.) I had to fill out a detailed questionnaire about the show, lots of essay questions, about a show I hated, stupid questions like “Would you rather watch FALCONE or Show X and why?”. I had to compare it to about 10 other shows individually, and I think I found it better than only 1 of the other shows mentioned. I was especially annoyed when after all my negative feedback, it showed up (on CBS) anyway. At least it died a pretty quick death!

  7. I went drove to downown to chicago…. i think in 1981 -83 to view be park of a focus group where they showed us “bumpers” (which i loved — i loved and continue to love richard masur) and a bunch of commercials after getting one of those “you have been selected” neison like come ons. we went, and they asked us MUCH more detailed questions on the commercials than the shows. it was such a common scam, that one of the people roped into this screening (or a similar) screening was a local news reporter for “the Star” newspaper chain in chicago’s south suburbs….when she revealed it was a scam i was devastated, but it reinforced what i already suspected.

  8. I saw both the Ugily Family and Bumpers in Boston as part of a focus group somewhere around the late 80s or early 90s.

    I had been (until now) under the impression that it was primarily about the pilots, not the commercials. We were asked questions about both.

  9. My parents and I saw the “Bumpers” pilot in 1977 as part of a Dallas Marriott focus group of about 200 people.

  10. I was also at the focus group in Maryland, along with two friends, and we all felt that Bumpers was outstanding. We were pretty clued in that it was all about the commercials but didn’t care; the whole thing was fun.

    I’ve searched high and low for a copy of Bumpers and from what I could find online, the only place you could still view it was at the TV Museum in California. Not sure if that’s still the case, tho’.

  11. I saw The Ugily Family at an auditorium test in Atlanta in the late-mid 80s (maybe 86). I’m 90% sure that Hidden Valley was one of the ads being tested and, strangely enough, I would never have remembered it for the recall phone interview if the buddy I went with hadn’t reminded me. Now I remember them as one of the advertisers, but no idea what ad it was (probably about ranch dressing lol).

  12. I indeed saw “The Ugily Family” and “Bumpers” at a test screening with my family in 1981 or so. We all hated “The Ugily Family,” because we thought it was silly and pointless, and it recycled old formulas pioneered by the likes of “All in the Family,” “Three’s Company,” “Charles in Charge” and others. “Bumpers” was mildly amusing, especially the arm-wrestling scene, but it was a lot like Andy Kaufman’s “Taxi” (which, strangely enough, it predated by one year), so it had potential. My mother won some money in a prize drawing at the test screening, and someone called me up to ask me to recall my memories and impressions of the shows and the commercials. It was fun.

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