TV production is a lot more transparent than it used to be. Today, the TV-loving public can learn about pilots well before they’re made and follow along in real-time (may we recommend The A.V. Club for this) on their road to being picked up or rejected. But a couple of decades ago the process was much more mysterious. Ernie Smith of Tedium takes a look back at the television pilot process of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, exploring the various ways in which networks used to handle unsold pilots.
While many never saw the light of day (as is frequently the case today), networks also used to burn off unsuccessful pilot episodes over the summer, when no one was really watching TV. NBC, ABC, and CBS all used to air “anthology” series that consisted solely of failed pilots. CBS’ Summer Playhouse series even offered telephone numbers viewers could call to express whether or not they liked a particular pilot. As Smith points out, however, the system never really worked because “people who vote like everything—the pilots, on average, received 90 percent approval ratings from people who willingly dialed a pay number and told CBS their opinion on a TV show.” And as viewers caught wind that they were watching failed series rather than an actual anthology program, Summer Playhouse became less popular until it was retired in 1989 after three years.
Smith also dives into other minutiae around failed TV pilots, like the night in 1992 when BBC2 decided to air all the terrible television in the BBC archives and call the whole thing “TV Hell.” That included a failed pilot from the late 1960s called Mainly For Men, which attempted to turn a “lad mag” into a vaguely misogynistic TV show. And Smith ends his article with a reminder that sometimes failed shows can be a good thing. After all, if Jason Bateman’s NBC series The Jake Effect hadn’t been cancelled before it aired, Bateman wouldn’t have been free to make Arrested Development.