No, that isn’t a porn term. In television, most people know what a PILOT episode is, but a little more rare is the BACKDOOR PILOT. This is when a successful TV show intentionally tries to spinoff some of their characters into their own shows within the series proper – showing the TV execs with Nielsen ratings how people might think of the series. The benefit also being that they don’t have to expend money on a potential pilot TV episode and roll it into the existing series’ expenditures. I just happened to see several examples of this kind of thing all in one week, so I was apt to write about it. First, I am watching The Practice/Boston Legal as my “sleep while the TV is on” series. The last 4 episodes of The Practice became a backdoor pilot for the later series Boston Legal, as the newer character of Alan Shore played by James Spader and the guest star William Shatner as Denny Crane took off on their own show. As evidence the new series would have legs, Shatner became the first actor to ever win an Emmy for playing the same character on two different series (although Kelsey Grammar should have for Frasier Crane from both Cheers and Frasier).

On the episode I just saw of the U.S. version of THE OFFICE, they did the opposite of a backdoor pilot, and took an actual pilot and just incorporated all of the footage into an episode of the original show. The character of Dwight was supposed to be spun off into his own show, The Farm. A pilot was produced, but since NBC isn’t going to series – they funneled the footage and defrayed the costs into an episode of the final season of The Office instead.

I remember a single episode of DIF’RENT STROKES that featured a bunch of chicks from an all girls school that wound up being THE FACTS OF LIFE, which later crossed back over.

During an anniversary episode of STAR TREK VOYAGER, they did a backdoor pilot of a U.S.S. Excelsior with Captain Sulu episode. They tested the waters, but at the time Deep Space Nine was still on the air and Paramount determined that they couldn’t hold down 3 Star Trek’s at once. Too bad too, as using an Original Series cast member to anchor a series would have, in the 1990’s been a great prospect. Far better than that Scott Bakula crapfest we got called ENTERPRISE.

Even with Michael J. Fox’s 1980’s staple FAMILY TIES, they did a backdoor pilot for the series DAY BY DAY, and that show ran for a whole season and a half. What the public doesn’t ‘get’ is that backdoor pilot’s are usually created by the same producer/writers that do the successful series – but not the creators of that show. They want to create their own show, set it in the same ‘universe’ as the other show for potentially lucrative CROSSOVERS, where the big name stars of one show can guest appear on the other – usually in the month of November or May during the all important “sweeps” month where the aforementioned Nielsen ratings affect the ad rates.

Of course history’s most infamous backdoor pilot was the completely out of left field two appearances of Robin Williams – as an alien named MORK on Happy Days. Gary Marshall wanted to be in the Robin Williams business pretty fierce and used the popularity of Happy Days to do 2 entire episodes with the then unknown stand up comic before ABC went to series with Mork and Mindy on their own – unrelated to the other show in any way.

In today’s world, you just have your NCIS or Law and Order episode take a character to some other city, and Oila! You have a backdoor pilot.

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Peter John Ross

A filmmaker, a dreamer, and the world's only Dan Akroyd Cosplayer


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