The Backdoor Pilot, or ""Did I Accidentally Change the Channel to a Different Show?"
It happened on an episode of The Brady Bunch called Kelly's Kids. Two neighbors we have never seen in the series before, played by Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy, drop by to visit Mike and Carroll, and tell them about how they have decided to adopt an 8 year old boy. The episode then shifts to the neighbors house on the day they bring their new kid home. While he enjoys living with his new parents, he misses two other boys that he grew up with at the orphanage. So Ken and Brooke go back to the orphanage to see about adopting the two other boys and find out one is black and the other Asian. Deciding color should not matter, they adopt the boys, which triggers the town bigot to visit their house and complain in advance about all the damage the minority kids will some day do to her property. And by this time we are 25 minutes into the episode and the Brady Bunch are nowhere to be found. And you ask yourself "What the f#ck???"
What you have stumbled onto is what the industry calls a "backdoor pilot". Basically it is not an episode of The Brady Bunch, but really the first episode of a different series. Kelly's Kids is probably the most famous of the back door pilots, not that it ever resulted in a series, but that with the continuing popularity of The Brady Bunch, it has become the most watched back door pilot in television history, confounding at least four generations of television viewers since it first aired. Back door pilots are almost always the same. The episode opens with a character who was never in the series before, and will never be on the series again, shows up to talk to some of the main cast members. Almost immediately we inexplicably end up at the new character's home or place of business for the entire episode, being introduced to new characters and new plot lines. There is some sort of crisis that the new characters solve, then the episode ends with at least one of the regular cast members finally showing up. A cameo on their own show.
They are nasty little tricks. Here we were, looking forward to seeing a new episode of our favorite show, sometimes after waiting for a week or more since the last episode aired. But instead we ended up with something else, a different show. A show you don't care about ( how could you if you never heard of it before ) which is on instead of your show. A preemption, only they are not calling it a preemption, are they. They are calling it a new episode of what it isn't. The only thing that came close to being as disappointing would be the occasional clip show.
The term "backdoor pilot" is wide reaching, and goes beyond describing those odd television episodes. It actually means any pilot a producer got on the air using network money that was not meant to be a pilot. Whenever a producer comes up with an idea for a new television show he must then pitch the idea to a network. If no network is interested then that's that. But if they are interested, then what they want is to see a single episode of the new show in order to determine if it is any good. The seed money to the producer who uses it to make a pilot. Pilots are meant to be seen by network executives only, but occasionally ends up airing as the first episode of a series. This is not often though. Usually the network wants major changes to a show, some recasting, or changing the tone, different sets, perhaps even moving the characters to a different city, or even changing the era when the show takes place. The pilot represents something the network did not think would work without alterations.
But sometimes a network is interested in a show, but does not want to seed any money for the pilot. Or sometimes they are not interested in the pitch, and the producer realizes he needs to present them an episode to prove the show will work. Without money for a pilot, the producer must come up with a creative way to get the network to fund it's production. And the usual way was through telemovies.
Back in the 70s and 80s the three big networks aired movies on Sunday night, and other nights during the week. Much of the time these were recent Hollywood hits, but no network could afford to pay the royalties to air theatrical films year long. It was actually much cheaper for them to produce their own movies. Something shot on a low budget using actors contracted to their network, and could be aired as many ties as they wanted. The money for the production of the film was made back by selling it to overseas distributors to be shown in foreign theaters. The networks wanted lots of telemovies to fill out their schedule. So when a producer offered to make a movie based on the same concept they had pitched as a series, the networks agreed to fund it. This saved the network the time and hassle of producing it themselves. These movies are meant to be pilots. Even if they don't work, the network would only need to air them once. And if they do work then a series would follow.
Many popular television series began with backdoor pilot telemovies. Charlie's Angels, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Incredible Hulk, Kung Fu, Eight Is Enough, The Night Stalker, Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, just to name a few. But what if a show is pitched as a telemovie and the network is still not interested? In 1959 producer Sheldon Leonard wanted to do a television series Andy Griffith, a popular stage comedian who had just crossed over to movie star with two hit films, A Face in the Crowd ( 1957 ) and No Time For Sergeants ( 1958 ). The proposed series would feature Andy as the sheriff of a small southern town. But while Sheldon was convinced the series would be a hit, and thought getting Griffith to agree to do a series was a great catch, he could not get any of the networks to finance a pilot. It looked as if the series would never happen when it occurred to Leonard that he already had the financing he needed. He was already producing a show for CBS, The Danny Thomas Show. Since the premise of the series had Danny on tour most of the time, why not have an episode where he drives into the town where Griffith is the sheriff? On February 15th, 1960 that just did happen during the episode Danny Meets Andy Griffith. While driving through the sleepy town of Mayberry, Danny is pulled over by sheriff Andy Taylor for missing a stop sign. This leads to a stay in the town jail. Both CBS and the show's sponsor General Foods were pleased with the episode and agreed to commit to Griffith's series. Using an episode of an already existing series for a backdoor pilot was invented. Four years later Leonard repeated the same trick by using an episode of The Andy Griffith Show to air a pilot for Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Other producers picked up on Leonard's trick, and soon backdoor pilots were appearing on other shows. Take, for example, the backdoor pilot for Assignment: Earth. In the spring of 1968 producer Gene Roddenberry was resigned to the fact that his show Star Trek would be cancelled by NBC. Deciding Star Trek was good as dead, he decided to use what would be the series finale as a backdoor pilot for his next series. The character of Gary Seven is introduced, a secret agent working for an advanced alien race who's assignment is to travel to 1968 and basically prevent America and the U.S.S.R. from starting a third world war. Assignment: Earth would have been a poor series finale. It did not tie up the series nor give any of the characters an opportunity to say goodbye. But did work as an episode, thanks to the practice of integrating the regular cast into the story. Viewers may have noticed that Gary Seven and his companions were getting an abnormal amount of screen time, but thanks to most of the episode involving regular Star Trek characters, would not have suspected this was meant to be a pilot. NBC would pass on picking Assignment: Earth up as a new series, but thanks to a write in campaign from viewers, would agree to give Star Trek a third season.
Backdoor pilots would become more obvious during the 70s. Instead of integrating characters from the parent series into the episode, often they would appear for no more than a few minutes. The reason for this was to devote as much time to displaying the new series as possible. It also allowed the production of the backdoor pilot and a regular episode on the same week, therefore keeping production of the series ahead of schedule. But they did have their drawbacks. Normally pilots are not aired, giving the network and producers the opportunity to recast and make necessary changes. Backdoor pilots introduce millions of viewers to premises, actors, even characters that could be changed drastically when the actual series premieres. Take, for instance, an episode of Golden Girls titled Empty Nest, meant to be a backdoor pilot for a series starring Rita Moreno, a neighbor who appears in that episode only. The premise, Rita and her husband ( George Dooley ) are having a hard time dealing with each other after their children have grown up and moved out. NBC did not like the concept of deriving comedy from empty nest syndrome, and were cold on a weekly show starring Rita Moreno. But they did love the goofy neighbor, played by David Leisure. The series was given a green light, provided changes were made. When the series Empty Nest debuted a season later, Rita Moreno's character was killed off, George Dooley was replaced with actor Richard Mulligan, and the names of all the characters were changed. And another change, widower Mulligan has to deal with both his adult daughters moving back in with him.
Another risk of producing a back door pilot is the network may refuse to air the episode at all. Certainly if you have a hit show the network will want to air as many new episodes as possible, but shows that are mildly popular or close to cancellation have seen the networks reject the backdoor pilot episode. One that came close to this fate was Leap of Faith, an episode produced for the final season of Miami Vice. Once again characters were introduced who went off and did their own thing for an hour. With faltering ratings, NBC made it clear that this would be Miami Vice's final season, and a final episode with detectives Crockett and Tubbs turning in their badges was filmed. While NBC was willing to allow the now low rated series to finish out the season, they did not feel obligated to air every episode. Five episodes were pulled from the schedule in order to end the season early, including Leap of Faith. The network did have a change of heart during the summer and began airing the "lost" episodes, but the pilot came close to never airing. Many other shows were not as lucky. Networks are usually just as upset about backdoor pilots in established series as the viewers are. They ordered episodes of a specific show and got something else. Not to mention how hard it is to promo these episodes with only a minute of footage with the original cast to work with. Many times these episodes do not air on the network, and have only turned up in syndication or on the DVD.
Backdoor pilots are mostly a thing of the past. In an era when producers like to use the internet to stay in touch with their programs fan base, they have seen nothing but complaints whenever a backdoor pilot episode aired. In addition, those backdoor pilot episodes had a terrible track record of being picked up as series. Finally with the rise of cable networks there has been more options as to where to sell your series. With backdoor pilots being a rarity, they have become a curiosity on the cable channels that air old series. On cable these shows air in blocks, sometimes as much as for hours long, instead of one episode a day as they did in syndication. This increased the odds of encountering a backdoor pilot. Message boards for classic television series devoted entire threads to these episodes. Why was most of the episode devoted to characters not from the show? Eventually one of the members who was old enough to know posted the answers, that these were actually failed pilots.
With the renewed interest in backdoor pilots comes the confusion over it's exact definition. Some have insisted on assigning a new term to those backdoor pilot episodes such as "sneaky pilot" or "poorly disguised pilot" and leaving the term "backdoor pilot" defined as telemovies only. Yes, the telemovies and pilot episodes are very different, but the term refers to basically the same thing, using alternative network money to finance a pilot that has already been rejected. There has also been confusion as to what qualifies as a backdoor pilot. Many blogs and even articles have credited the series Mork & Mindy beginning as a backdoor pilot on Happy Days. Robin Williams guest starred as Mork twice on Happy Days. The first was a one shot episode with no plans for the Mork character ever to return. The episode ends with Richie waking up having dreamed of Mork. However, there was such a positive viewer response to Robin Williams and his Mork character that they decided to spin it off into a regular series. An extra scene was shot for the rerun showing that Mork had caused Richie to think his visit was a dream, and had received instructions from his home planet to study more humans in the year 1978. Mork made a second appearance on Happy Days a year later on a clip show when the Mork & Mindy series had already been on for half a season. Neither episode featured Pam Dawber, nor showed Mork's home in the 1970s. Therefore neither were backdoor pilots.
Mork & Mindy counted as a spin-off of Happy Days, even though the Mork Character had only appeared in one episode. This does bring up the question as to what the definition of spin-off is. Often shows that began as backdoor pilots are credited as spin-off of their parent show, since the definition of spin-off is a series featuring any character that had previously appeared on another series. Happy Days producer Garry Marshall saw his series as the perfect breeding ground for further spin-offs.Much like Mork, Laverne & Shirley both began as one shot characters on Happy Days that did well with viewers. Nancy Blansky and Random were characters created for their respective series Blansky's Beauties and Out of the Blue. Marshall had both characters make a guest appearance on Happy Days just prior to the debut of their own shows. This was both a way to promote their shows, and to qualify both as Happy Days spin-offs. Neither counted as backdoor pilots for two reasons; both shows had already been picked up as series, and neither guest appearance introduced the viewer to the rest of the cast of the spin-off shows. In fact, Out of the Blue lost it's bid to be a spin-off when ABC scheduled it's premiere episode a week before they aired the Happy Days episode where Random the Angel had a guest appearance. Using a parent series to promote characters in a spin-off series does not count as a backdoor pilot. The purpose of a pilot is to demonstrate to network executives that a show will work. This is not the purpose of having the characters guest appear on their parent show, but rather is a stunt called the cross over.
Those who claim that The Bionic Woman began as a backdoor pilot on The Six Million Dollar Man are mistaken. The character Jamie Sommers appeared in a two part episode that was meant to be a one shot story where Steve Austin's injured girlfriend is given bionics of her own. Producers had no intention of bringing the character back, which is why she dies in a hospital at the end of the second episode when her body rejects the bionic implants. After complain letters from viewers, a second appearance was made by Jamie Sommers, revealing that the doctors had successfully revived her and somehow cured her, but had neglected to tell Steve. It was ABC that asked for the spin-off series, so no pilot was ever needed. Things get a little more muddy in the case of Maude, a character that appeared twice on All in the Family before moving to her own series. Maude's first appearance was meant to be a one shot, but after the episode had positive response from viewers, a second episode featuring Maude was made which was a backdoor pilot. Maude was one of the few successful backdoor pilots.
Another backdoor pilot that made it to series was Family Dog which began as a backdoor pilot on Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories. Funny no one seemed to notice, considering it was the only fully animated episode, and featured two different 15 minute stories. Some other backdoor pilots have fallen under the radar, usually because they are proposed spin-off series for regular characters. Perhaps the most ambitious was an attempt by producer James Komack to convince ABC to back a spin-off series called Rich Man, Poor Man; Horshack! Not only did he need to convince the network that a spin-off series with the Horshack character would work, but that Welcome Back, Kotter would work with one less Sweathog. This was done with two episodes. The first, an episode called Has Anyone Seen Arnold where Horshack goes missing, demonstrated that the other three Sweathogs could function without him. The second called There Goes Number 5 featured Horshack at home with his family, introducing the cast for the proposed spin-off. His absence from school explained by the sudden death of his father. Had the spin-off gone to series then it's premise would have been Horshack dropping out of school to take over raising his younger brothers and sisters.
But the most overlooked backdoor pilot is the one made for the series it is being shown on. In other words you are watching The John Doe Show and one of the episodes is a backdoor pilot for The John Doe Show. Why would this be? There comes a point in most television series when they begin to drop in the ratings. If the ratings are low enough then it is a foregone conclusion that they will not be renewed for another season. Cancelled. Sure, the producer will take measures to bring back viewers. New characters, a pregnancy, a wedding, special guest stars, anything. And if that all fails then there is only one thing left to do. Reboot the series. Make changes so drastic that the series is no longer recognizable, to the point where you may as well call it a spin-off series. And basically it is a new series. The basic reason for the reboot is to convince the network that whatever made the show fail has been purged, and it has been changed into something viewers want to see. It has been fixed.
You may have noticed this happen on some of the series you watch. Nearly all of the supporting cast is gone. The surviving cast moves to a new location. Even the very premise of the show changes. Bob Newhart played a comic book artist in his third series, Bob. The series did not do well in the ratings, and it was rebooted. For it's second season the entire supporting cast, his wacky co-workers at the comic book company, were gone. Bob now worked for a greetings card company with an entire new cast. But what if a reboot is pitched to network executives and they still want to cancel the show. How about a pilot for the reboot itself.
The Facts of Life had no less than six backdoor pilot episodes during it's nine seasons, so it is no surprise the producers would use the final episode for a reboot pilot. Had The Facts of Life gone on for another season it would have had Lisa Whelchel's character, Blair, take over as housemother for the fictional Eastland school, and converting it from all-female to co-ed. This would not be the first time the series was rebooted. After it's first season half the cast was eliminated ( poor Molly Ringwald among the actresses fired ) narrowing the cast down to four girl students segregated from the rest of the school after a run in with the law. While NBC agreed to the first reboot, this time they were not interested. The series was originally a spin-off of Different Strokes starring actress Charlotte Rae, and she had quit two years earlier. But that did not stop the producers from trying to convince NBC to change their minds. In the second to last episode titled The Beginning of The End, Blair buys the financially strapped Eastland Girls School to save it from closing, which would have worked as a good series finale, but there was still one more episode to go. The final episode, titled The Beginning of the Beginning, shows Blair as the housemother, and introduces what would have been the tenth season cast, which included Juliette Lewis, Mayim Bialik and Seth Green as some of the new students. Much like the other six backdoor pilots, the series ender did not interest NBC.
Another backdoor pilot that failed to save it's series was Young Americans, the final episode of the groundbreaking series All-American Girl, the first sitcoms to feature an all Asian cast. The original series featured comedian Margaret Cho as a Korean girl in her 20's still living with her very traditional parents, and the clash between their culture and Margaret's attempts to be an average American. During it's 19 episode run, it's producers and executives at ABC kept making changes in an attempt to boost the ratings. Instead the constant changes cause the ratings to plummet. Despite the potential bad publicity from cancelling televisions only all-Asian sitcom, ABC decided the ratings were too low for the show to continue. The producers wanted to save it. Deciding that the shows biggest problem was the parents, the decision was made to reboot the series by getting rid of the family and moving Margaret into a new apartment with three male roommates. ABC was still not convinced a rebooted Margaret Cho show would work, so the final episode of All-American Girl became the pilot for the next season. ABC was still not convinced, and All-American Girl was allowed to die.
But there have been a few success stories. One recent example was the episode Letters of Transit, a backdoor pilot for the fifth season of Fringe. The series had been gradually declining in the ratings, and it's producers feared it would be cancelled. They wanted one last season to wrap up the series. The observers, a race of mysterious bald men who had appeared in the series from time to time, were actually invaders who planed to overthrow the world. The series was gradually building up to this, but with the possibility of eminent cancellation, the producers of Fringe wanted to get to that story as soon as possible. The invasion, and the attempts of the Fringe cast to overthrow the invaders, would be the focus of the final season. A decision was made to use the 19th episode of the fourth season for a backdoor pilot for the fifth season. Hopefully it would convince the FOX executives to pick up Fringe for a final season, but if they didn't it would also serve as a pilot for any other network interested in picking Fringe up. Letters of Transit begins in the year 2036, decades after the observers have taken over the planet. Rebels have found the body of Fringe member, Dr. Walter Bishop, frozen in amber, and free him from his suspended animation. Thanks to the amber, he has not aged. Bishop eventually leads the rebels to other Fringe members also frozen in amber, and reveals that before they were frozen he had come up with a plan to rid the planet of the observer invaders. This is where the episode ends. The following week the series returned to the current decade and finished off that seasons story arc with no mention of the observers. FOX picked Fringe up for a 13 episode final season. While it is not known if Letters of Transit was what convinced FOX to pick Fringe up for a final season, it did serve as the first episode shown out of sequence, the remaining episodes of the last season beginning directly where Letters of Transit left off.