A backdoor pilot is defined by Variety as a "pilot episode filmed as a standalone movie so it can be broadcast if not picked up as a series." It is distinguished from a simple pilot in that it has a dual purpose: It has an inherent commercial value of its own while also being, as Alex Epstein describes it, "proof of concept for the show, that's made to see if the series is worth bankrolling."
This definition also includes episodes of one show introducing a spin-off. Such "backdoor pilots" most commonly focus on an existing character from the parent series who is planned for their own spinoff show — for example, when Denise (Lisa Bonet), an established character on The Cosby Show, was planned to be spun off to A Different World, a Cosby Show episode was devoted to Denise traveling to visit the college which would become the new show's setting, and meeting some of the new show's supporting characters.
In other cases, however, an episode of the parent show may also focus on one or more guest characters who have not previously appeared in the show; for example, the backdoor pilot for the television sitcom Empty Nest was an episode of The Golden Girls, which relegated that show's regular stars to supporting characters in an episode devoted to new characters who were introduced as their neighbors. Feedback on the episode resulted in Empty Nest being extensively reworked before its debut; while the "living next to the Golden Girls" setting was retained, the series ended up featuring characters different from those in the original Golden Girls episode.
Not all backdoor pilots lead to a series. In 1968, the Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth" was intended as the pilot for a spin-off of the same name, featuring an alien-bred superhuman sent to watch over Earth in the 1960s; while the series was not picked up, its characters have appeared in numerous non-canon Trek productions set in the 20th century. The series finale of One Day at a Time in May 1984 was supposed to serve as a backdoor pilot to a spin-off featuring Pat Harrington, Jr.'s "Dwayne Schneider" character in a new setting, but the network ultimately passed on the potential series. An example from an animated series would be in The Fairly OddParents episode "Crash Nebula" which was used as a backdoor pilot for a series called Crash Nebula, that was never produced. In a more recent example (June 2010), Lifetime was pursuing a spinoff procedural drama for Army Wives featuring Brigid Brannagh's character, police officer Pamela Moran. The fourth season episode "Murder in Charleston" was intended to serve as a backdoor pilot for the proposed spin-off. The episode sees Moran teaming up with an Atlanta-based detective on a murder that is related to a case she has been working on for the past three years. At the end of the episode, the detective encourages Moran to take a detective's exam, and to look for her if she is in Atlanta. In September 2010, however, Lifetime declined to pick up the project for a series. The Gossip Girl episode "Valley Girls" was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a prequel spin-off series starring Brittany Snow as a young Lily van der Woodsen; the series was to be set in the 1980s. However, the show was not picked up.
A historically important venue for backdoor pilots has been the anthology series. They have variously been used as a place to show work still being actively considered for pickup, and as a venue for completed work already rejected by the network. With the decline of anthology series, backdoor pilots have increasingly been seen as episodes of existing series, one-off television movies, and mini-series. As backdoor pilots have either failed to sell or are awaiting audience reception from its one-time broadcast, networks will not advertise them as pilots, only promoting them as a "special" or "movie". It is thus often unclear to initial viewers of backdoor pilots that they are seeing a pilot of any kind, unless they have been privy to knowledgeable media coverage of the piece.
Famous quotes containing the word pilots:
“You know what Im talking about. This business has changed. Flyers arent pilots anymore, theyre engineers. This is a college mans game. Our work is done. The pioneering is over.”
—Frank W. Wead (1895?1947)