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  • Posted By: Admin
  • Posted On: 2013-03-11 00:00:00

"A television pilot (also known as a "pilot", "pilot episode", and "series premiere") is a standalone episode of a television series that is used to sell the show to a television network (TV Network). At the time of its creation, the pilot is meant to be the "testing ground" to gauge if a series will be successful, and is therefore a test episode of an intended television series. It is an early step in the development of a television series, much like pilot lights or pilot studies serve as precursors to the start of larger activity, or pilot holes prepare the way for larger holes. Television networks use pilots to discover whether an entertaining concept can be successfully realized. After seeing this sample of the proposed product, networks will then determine whether the expense of additional episodes is justified. They are best thought of as prototypes of the show that is to follow, because elements often change from pilot to series. Most pilots are never publicly screened if they fail to sell a series. If a series eventuates, pilots are usually - but not always - broadcast as the introductory episode of the series." Wikipedia.

Variety Magazine, an American weekly entertainment paper, estimates that only a little over a quarter of all pilots made for American televisions proceed to the series stage although the figure may be even lower.

In Kenya, the figure is much much lower with the obvious reason that not much production takes place compared to Hollywood. However, there has been a notable increase in pilots being made in recent times an indicator that more local content is being demanded. This could partly be influenced by the government policy to increase local content on TV networks by 40%, something yet to be realized. It however does not change the fact that approximately 20-50 pilot ideas, proposals and briefs are received by Kenyan TV networks for new shows from writers and producers yearly.

Once they have been produced, the pilots are presented to studio and network executives, and in some cases to test audiences; at this point, each pilot receives various degrees of feedback and is gauged on their potential to advance from one pilot to a full-fledged series. Using this feedback, and factoring in the current status and future potential of their existing series, each network chooses about 2 to 5 pilots for series status. The new series are then presented at the networks' annual advertisers meeting, where they are added to network schedules for the following season and at the upfront presentation the shows are shown to potential advertisers and the networks sell the majority of the advertising for their new pilots. The survival odds for these new series are low, as only one or two shows survive for more than one season.

The process of making a pilot is not different from the process of making the actual TV series or a movie for that matter. A scriptwriter has a story.  A producer likes the story. A team is assembled to produce the pilot. Finally, auditions are held to get the cast to make the pilot. Alternatively, producers/directors/casting directors decide to hold private auditions and get a hold of the star actors to take part in the project. Whatever means is used to get the actors, the next process is what daunts most of them.... THE WAITING!!

There are actors who will testify that they finally started shooting the actual TV series two years later or even more, after they were done shooting a pilot. Some are still waiting for their phones to ring. So what happens? Where do these pilots end up?

Two major obvious reasons could hinder a pilot from not being successful or the idea not being bought by TV networks.

One of those reasons is: Your pilot idea wasn’t good enough or your idea was splendid but the pilot episode produced, something which TV networks nowadays are making it compulsory to have, was not executed to their liking or expectations.  To curb the problem of badly executed pilots, producers tend to get experienced liked actors (famous faces with influence and large number of followers) and mix that with new upcoming actors to try and sell their pilots because TV network executives generally have ultimate authority over casting and they will want to air a show on their TV networks with actors who can pull crowds to run home to watch their shows.  If you thought producers/directors have the ultimate say in which actor should be in which program, ask the producer whose pilot show was not accepted because they chose to work with an actor who was not liked by a TV exec in a certain TV station and had to replace him.

Another major reason for failure of pilots and it goes without saying is money. Yes, your idea was liked. Yes your pilot made TV executives to want to see more but No, they can’t afford to invest the amount of money that you are asking for. Consequently, what we end up with are some of the shady low budget programs we are now being forced to watch. Our audience demands quality and quality requires good amount of money to deliver, money which TV networks are not willing to part ways with. Desperate to have their show aired, some producers take the diminutive amounts offered on the table, force a quality show with modest payments to cast and crew who eventually end up being disgruntled, opt to leave the show half way through and that then leads to a short run of shows on our TVs as it can’t continue anymore. Yes, you could get new actors and crew to continue with the show but the audience will tell you why that is not a good idea. With Digital migration not being a farfetched notion anymore, I think producers will now breathe easy and not depend so much on TV networks as they can have their own channel to show their content and only work on trying to get sponsors and advertisers to buy into their shows.

Still on money matters, there is a so called made up rule in Kenya that cast should not be paid when working on a Pilot. I use the word working deliberately to mean exactly that and singled out actors because this vice is imposed on actors mostly. Producers calling for pilot shoots should understand that those two to three days or even a week’s time of shooting a pilot, actors invest their money, time and talent towards it and it is sad that they don’t get much in return especially if there is a 10% chance of the pilot being accepted. Whilst it is understandable that “it’s only a pilot” hence the producer will self-fund the project, it is utterly distasteful for a producer to be able to afford high end cameras, pay for locations, pay for crew and leave out the cast because “it’s only a pilot”. Let’s break the rules and write a new one, if you are going to pay crew to help you make a pilot pay the cast as well. Alternatively, have a contract that stipulates that the cast and crew will get paid for the number of days they made a pilot and please be sure to provide food and transport.  The best option however would be to have a good reasonable budget that will cater well for all the parties concerned to leave them happy and content and I am sure the prayers will come in handy to motivate a successful pilot. It is business after all for the producers the same way it is business for the cast and crew. And no, promising cast/crew that they will keep their roles or jobs once the pilot goes through is not a good enough reason because that is what is expected anyway.

Actors should however choose carefully what pilots they would like to work on because, if it is not chosen, they have wasted their time and money and may have missed out on better career opportunities.

Written by Gerald Langiri


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