What is a pilot episode? It is impossible to overstate just how vital a good pilot is within the television industry. In this post, we will explain what a pilot episode is, where it got that name, how a pilot gets made, and how it becomes a show. We will finish up by looking at a couple of examples of noteworthy pilots.
What is a Pilot Episode
First, let’s define pilot episode
It is important to have a thorough grasp of what exactly a pilot is if you have any hopes of working in the television industry. And, if you encounter any other unfamiliar industry jargon, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a great resource for looking up terms.
PILOT EPISODE DEFINITION
What is a pilot episode?
A pilot episode is the first episode made for a potential series. A pilot does not need to be the first episode of a show chronologically speaking; the pilot can be a sample episode from any point in the potential show’s story. The goal of a pilot episode is to convince a network to greenlight the would-be series and order a full season of the show. Many shows never get beyond the pilot stage, while others are picked up and become long-running hits. Almost every TV show begins as a pilot in one form or another.
Pilot Episode Characteristics:
- The first episode to be made
- Pilots are often made before committing to a full season
- Script should lay out the essential characters and plot
PILOT MEANING IN SHOWS
Why is it called a pilot?
So why are pilot episodes called pilots? There is actually some disagreement over the origin of the term. Some suggest that it comes from ‘pilot light,’ as in, the first episode is the spark that grows into a larger flame that is the series.
Others suggest that the term comes from the idea of the first episode serving as the figurative pilot of a boat or plane that guides the rest of the series.
Perhaps the most likely origin-point for the term stems from the Greek roots of the word ‘pilot’ meaning to serve as a prototype. The pilot episode serves as a prototype for potential networks to see what a fully-commissioned show could look and feel like.
TV Pilot Structure
How a pilot gets made
There are two main ways that a pilot can be made.
1: Pitched and commissioned.
2: Produced independently.
Let’s dig into both ways a little deeper.
If a show creator has the right connections, they may find themself pitching ideas for a TV series directly to executives and networks. If the gatekeepers like what they hear, they may commission a pilot episode.
You can think of it like a test run for an idea that they like the sound of but need to see more of before they can commit the time, budget, resources, and air-time towards it.
If a show creator can’t get meetings with the right people, or those people just don’t like the pitch, then a pilot episode can be made independently. Taking this approach means the pilot gets written as a spec script.
Pilots can be divided into two categories: premise pilots and non-premise pilots aka episode pilots. A premise pilot sets up and begins to explore the premise of a show. A premise pilot is more often than not the beginning of the storyline chronologically speaking.
A non-premise pilot does not set the stage for the overall story but rather focuses on simply presenting the viewer with what an average episode would be like. Non-premise pilots are typically made to feel as though they could fall anywhere within the run of a show. Pilots of this nature are more common in sitcoms and other comedy series than in dramas.
Both pilot types have found success, so there is no wrong answer. But it is important to pick which type of pilot before beginning the writing process.
Here's a video that explains pilot season and how cable and streaming have changed it.
When a spec pilot gets picked up by a network, the pilot episode that convinced them to greenlight the show is not always shown to audiences. Sometimes a network will remake the original pilot episode with a higher budget, different cast, or other changes that they deem necessary to fit with the rest of the show.
TV Pilot Structure
Examples of TV pilot scripts
The best way to understand how TV pilot scripts work is to look at some examples. We're going to include some iconic pilot episode scripts. But remember, at one point, no one had ever heard of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Stranger Things.
Those were once just anonymous scripts on a producer's desk. So, let's do an experiment — as you read these TV pilot scripts, pretend you're that producer. Do they properly set up the characters, settings, themes, etc.?
We imported these TV pilot scripts in StudioBinder's screenwriting software. All you need to do is click the image below to read the entire script. You can even download your own copies for further study.
First up, The Sopranos, written by David Chase.
Don't stop there. Read our breakdown of The Sopranos pilot for further analysis. Next up, one of the best TV comedies in recent memory: The Office, written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, adapted by Greg Daniels.
For more research, we have more TV pilot scripts for you, linked below.
Why Do TV Shows Start with Pilot
Notable pilot examples
Let’s take a look at a couple more examples of noteworthy pilots and how the episode made it to the screen. One of the best known Cinderella-stories of the TV pilot world is the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pilot. This was a spec pilot that was made into a proof of concept extremely cheaply, then sold to FX.
The spec pilot is extremely rough around the edges and is visually unacceptable for broadcast, but FX could see the potential, which is why the network never aired the spec pilot, and instead had the team generate new episodes to kickstart the show with more of a budget.
Heat Vision and Jack was a pilot episode that achieved legendary status despite never getting picked up for a full season. For all intents and purposes, Heat Vision and Jack failed as a pilot because it did not perform well enough for the Fox network to greenlight the full show.
However, the pilot did succeed in impressing some of the right people and would play a part in furthering the careers of co-creators Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. The full pilot is included below.
It was directed by Ben Stiller and stars Jack Black alongside the voice of Owen Wilson as a talking motorcycle. If you are a fan of Dan Harmon, it is definitely a pilot worth watching. And our breakdown of his Story Circle writing technique can help you improve the structure of your own stories.
The original pilot of the iconic Twin Peaks series was much longer than the version that aired in the U.S., though the extended version was aired in other countries. In the original pilot, before a full season had been commissioned, the central question of “who killed Laura Palmer” was answered right at the end of this first episode.
This reveal would wind up getting removed from the broadcast pilot. Laura's killer would end up completely changing as well. And so, the mystery could be sustained throughout the show's two seasons.
Another TV pilot from creator David Lynch, the king of surrealism, offers an inverse of the typical pilot approach. The film Mulholland Drive was originally produced as the pilot episode of a would-be television show.
Like many pilots, the full series was never commissioned. But David Lynch didn’t want all of his hard work going to waste. And so, he wrote and shot additional scenes and turned his pilot into a feature film.
A strong pilot episode is key in getting a show picked up by a network. Sometimes having a great pilot still isn’t enough to get a show picked up for a full season. You also need your pilot to stand out during pilot season.
What is pilot season?
Now that you have a thorough understanding of what a pilot episode is, it is the perfect time to learn about pilot season. Finding a career in the television industry as a series creator or showrunning means mastering the pilot episode and understanding how to navigate the TV-production pipeline. Learn all about it, up next.