🎁 'Tis the season to support public service journalism Donate Now

Star in a TV pilot? You should sign a pre-nup

David Weinberg Mar 11, 2014

Star in a TV pilot? You should sign a pre-nup

David Weinberg Mar 11, 2014

This is the season of the television pilot. Networks are shelling out boatloads of cash to produce what they hope will be mega- hits. Of course, most of the pilots produced each season are not mega-hits, they’re not even micro-hits. The vast majority don’t even make it to air. But there is a way to tell which ones the studios are banking on. It’s sort of like a pilot pre-nuptual agreement. It’s properly called a put pilot.

Let’s say you are a bright-eyed young TV writer. You’ve just pitched your first pilot to the networks and they love it. Actors are hired, sets built, the pilot is shot, and…it’s terrible. The studio kills the project and tells you to get lost. Welcome to Hollywood. Now, if your pilot had what’s called a put pilot commitment, things would have gone much differently.

“Put pilot means that the network or the studio behind the pilot has ordered it and committed to putting it on the air,” says Ben Travers, a TV editor for Indiewire.

The put gets added because it means the show will be put into production. But here’s the important guarantee: If the network doesn’t air the show, it pays you a hefty penalty.

So how does a pilot get put?

“Well, if it’s a sexy hot script by a very hot writer, then you are going to have competition all over town,” says Jay Gendron, a former executive with Warner Brothers. He says studios can gain an edge over other networks by offering put pilot commitment for a show. While throwing money at a pilot can secure a hot series, it doesn’t guarantee it will be a hit.

Here are all the ways a put pilot can go down in flames:

Didn’t even get to pilot: Murder She Wrote
Despite a put pilot commitment, NBC changed their mind before the pilot of the “Murder She Wrote” reboot was even made. Rumor has it Angela Lansbury is investigating the mysterious death of the show.

Whacked after pilot: Beverly Hills Cop

Eddie Murphy signed on as an occasional guest star in a series based on the “Beverly Hills Cop” movie. But after the pilot was produced, CBS pulled the plug on it. Rumor has it the show was axed after Eddie Murphy refused to appear on screen unless he could play every character in the show.

 Killed after pilot, brought back to life: “The McCarthys

Ordered as a put pilot, shot as a single-camera show last season, nixed by CBS, and then rejiggered as a multi-camera comedy for this season. Rumor has it Eddie Murphy will be operating all the cameras.

Wait, actually made it!: “Sleepy Hollow

The series was put on air and became Fox’s top rated series. Rumor has it Washington Irving’s ghost is using supernatural powers to manipulate the Nielsen ratings.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.