The Art of Television: You Have One Episode
You have exactly one episode to sell the entire viewing public on your television show. Such a simple statement, it almost goes without saying. So, why am I saying it?
We consume media at such an astounding rate, it's a wonder we have any attention span left at all. If you can't sink your hooks into the audience after one episode, there's no guarantee they will give you a second episode, let alone an entire season.
Sadly, this is a pattern I see all too often, especially on network TV - an excruciatingly slow build of character arcs and plot lines that culminate into a season finale designed to blow us all away. The only problem is, most of the audience stopped watching months ago.
I can't count the number of programs that had the potential for greatness, but simply couldn't keep enough people interested. That first season might evolve into a massive orb of pulsating brilliance, but if the pilot episode doesn't enrapture your audience, no one is going to be around to care.
The 15 Minute Rule
One of the first things they teach in film school is "the fifteen minute rule." You have fifteen minutes to attract and retain the attention of your audience when they sit down to watch a film on the big screen.
In writer's terms, you have fifteen pages (each page represents one minute of screen time) to set up the entire film and hook your audience, and motion pictures average ninety minutes/pages.
With action films, you have even less time - you've got to fire a gun, blow something up, or kill someone in under five minutes or your audience will collectively pick up their cell phones and start texting their friends and family.
Since television shows average 12 episodes per season, and each episode is 22-30 or 42-60 minutes, it's counterintuitive to assume your audience is going to sit through hours of programming for a payoff that might not ever happen.
Your entire pilot episode needs to be treated exactly like the first fifteen pages of a screenplay. Not only does it need to establish and set the tone for the entire show, but it must clearly define a main character (even with an ensemble cast), and be just as powerful as the epic season finale it will eventually lead to.
There's no reason to hold anything back, because there's no guarantee you're going to have an audience after that first episode - it's that simple.
Good luck, and happy writing!