Two wild and crazy guys die. In Heaven, which they find boring, they amuse themselves by zooming in on Earth and tampering with the lives of mortals -- kind of like the gods on Mount Olympus. Each week the duo meddles with a different life and by the end of the show the conflicts work themselves out.
A detective dies, leaving a wife and child. His widow becomes a part-time waitress to support her child and a part-time detective in her late husband's firm for fulfillment. She practices detective work as she deals with the restaurant's patrons by assuming different personae.
Aliens descend to Earth disguising themselves as drapes -- as in living room curtains. They observe the resident earthlings while hanging comfortably from the rod, and the program consists of their comments to each other on the odd behavior of their hosts.
INCREDIBLE AS these story outlines seem, they once were potential candidates for prime-time entertainment. The mischief-I makers in Heaven, the waitress/detective and the drapes from outer space were submitted to television networks as possibilities for series. But someone weeded them out from the myriad ideas programming executives receive each year and they never grew beyond the concept stage.
And then there are some seemingly zany ideas that slip by and become pilots, as did this one -- filmed by Ed Friendly productions for NBC at a cost of $1.3 million and called "Judgment Day":
SCENE: A courtroom within a timeless palatial mansion.
PLAYERS: A judge, lawyers and jury (of nonactors, or the television audience).
STORY: The life of a recent deceased is reviewed and at the end of the show he/she is sentenced to Heaven or Hell. The television screen shows a toll-free number, encouraging viewers to call and respond with their judgment. Each week another life is put on trial.
"With Mr. Friendly's deal, NBC financed the whole thing," says Deborah Service, Friendly's assistant. Barry Sullivan plays the "Judge"; Victor Buono is the "Mr. Heavener" and Roddy McDowall is "Mr. Heller." But it never grew beyond the pilot stage, is not on the networks' fall schedule, and for now, has no air date, although Service says NBC has asked for another "Judgment Day" to be made and negotiations are under way.
Many television pilots are culled, but few are chosen. According to Phil Burrell, TV programming vice president for the advertising firm of Dancer, Fitzgerald Sample, Inc., in New York, roughly one-fourth of the total pilots actually filmed each year make it on the air. This season, Burrell estimates, only 23 out of some 85 shows produced made the fall schedule.
The entire process of making pilots begins one year in advance. Although this season is not representative because of the writers' strikes, what usually happens, according to Scott Siegler, vice president for dramatic programs development for CBS, is that between May and October networks buy or create their own ideas for new shows.
Siegler estimates the average cost for a one-hour dramatic pilot at $1 million (comedy costs less). Usually, the procedure is a joint venture between the networks and producers who agree to an amount of money to cover the cost of pilot production. The networks audit their suppliers' spending, says Tom Moore, chairman of the board of Tomorrow, Inc. -- a producer of the "Body Human" series that also made a pilot for ABC called "Relations." If the producers spend less than the original amount, then the network pays that lower figure. But if the producers overspend, according to Moore, the networks pay them only the amount originally agreed upon and they, the suppliers, are responsible for covering the difference. As Moore says, there is a "high risk factor."
"Producers know it's a crap shoot," says Siegler.
By October, story lines are approved for pilot episodes and production begins. Between October and December, the network execs "give notes" on first, second and polished drafts of scripts. In late December, early January they study the finished scripts. Some are "obvious failures," says Siegler; others seem like potential successes either because there is a good place for them on the schedule or they are "so fresh" they "deserve a shot."
In February or March, the casts and directors are approved. In April, the finished pilots are shown to management at the network, who recommend scheduling (or not scheduling). In May the new season is announced.
"We take chances," says Kim LeMasters, CBS' vice president for comedy programs development. "It's very difficult" to judge a pilot (as it's being made) and determine its potential success as a series. Sometimes, "we don't program some material because not all the elements come together in a cohesive fashion."
But it's a rare case when a finished pilot is never aired, "unless they are a total embarrassment," says Siegler. The shows are either reworked or used as fillers. LeMasters points to "Pen 'n Inc," a story about an aspiring cartoonist on a small-town newspaper, as an example of a pilot whose concept was considered good. But "Pen 'n Inc" involved some animation and "when we finished looking at the show we decided it just didn't work," LeMasters says. Instead of being made into a series, "Pen 'n Inc" aired this summer.
Below is a small sampling of filmed pilots that do not appear on the current prime-time schedule for 1981-82. Some, not unlike the story lines mentioned above, may be reworked or scheduled later in the year, if they haven't already aired. Burrell suggests that "if a pilot is not scheduled its chances of seeing life are extremely rare."
(Program information is from the advertising firms of Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, Inc., and Ted Bates. Shows are listed in alphabetical order.)
"BUNGLE ABBEY" -- Seven benevolent monks continually get into mischief in their attempts to do good. In the pilot, aired last May, they sell the monastery's prized painting to raise money for an orphanage. Gale Gordon stars as the abbott. By Lucille Ball Productions for NBC.
"FILTHY RICH" -- A wealthy Tennessee land baron, Big Guy Beck, dies and is cryogenically preserved. He has made a series of videotaped messages for his family. In the first, he acknowledges his illegitimate son, Wild Bill Weschester, and stipulates that poor Weschester and Bootsie, his wife, must move in with the rich Becks and peacefully coexist before any of them can inherit the bulk of his vast estate. By Columbia Pictures TV for CBS.
"HARRY'S BATTLES" -- Called "a contemporary comic situation that tackles the subject of consumers versus the bureaucracy." Dick Van Dyke plays Harry Fitzsimmons, a feisty consumer not intimidated by maddening red tape -- whether it's the phone company, auto repair shop or hotel reservations desk. Based on the English series "A Sharp Intake of Breath." With Connie Stevens as Fitzsimmons' wife. Produced by Marble Arch for ABC.
"HOT W.A.C.S." -- Another in the genre of "Private Benjamin," the show recounts the lives of women in the army and their dilemma between acting feminine or blending in with their fellow GIs. By Paramount for ABC.
"IN TROUBLE" -- Though pregnancy isn't mentioned, the comedy is said to focus on "15-year-old girls of enormous high spirits who dare to take risks and shuffle the notions of their stuffy family and friends." The girls have plenty of unsupervised time to make mischief with their parents often away. Called a "teen-aged 'Laverne and Shirley.' " Produced by Kukoff-Harris for ABC.
"IRON COWBOYS" -- Currently being reworked under the new name of "Nichols and Dymes." Travels by motorcycle with Buck and Willie, two unconventional undercover officers with a Butch and Sundance relationship, "having a little fun along the way . . . meeting women who like to stay out late." By MTM Enterprises for NBC.
"MR. & MRS. DRACULA" -- This pilot about a family of monsters with middle-class values aired last season, but rose from the video dead for this list. The Draculas "pull up stakes" in their native Transylvania because it's no longer considered a decent place to raise a family. They move to the South Bronx, try to shed their Old World outlook and assimilate into American life. By ABC Circle Films for ABC.
"ONE NIGHT BAND" -- A four-member country-western band travels the country in search of their big break. They live in a battered bus, constantly in need of repair, and stories revolve around their adventures in various towns. The pilot is now being reworked, but originally the group was trying to escape their unscrupulous manager, who forced an unfair contract on them. By MTM Enterprises for CBS.
"QUARREL" -- Spy series created in the tone of a John Le Carre' novel about Anthony Quarrel, a special agent for the State Department. Quarrel always suspects that the KGB has infiltrated the higher ranks of American intelligence and is privy to top-secret international assignments. By Lorimar for CBS.
"RELATIONS" -- The nonfiction show, whose pilot was never finished, proposed to explore "real-life experiences via the dramatic examination of group inter-relationships among people located in different parts of the U.S. and with vastly different lifestyles determined by their jobs or locales." By Tomorrow/Medcom for ABC.
"WHACKED OUT" -- A stuffy publishing conglomerate takes over an underground humor magazine. Stories revolve around the staff, mainly brilliant Harvard students, and their chief antagonist, a pompous corporate executive. By Century Towers Productions for NBC.
If these story lines were considered as potential series and made it to celluloid, then how do network executives look at raw TV material and assess its value as entertainment? "My specific job," says LeMasters, "is to make a show that can be repeated at least 100 times," or five years' worth of series episodes.
Siegler puts it this way: "It's not brain surgery. You're working on your instincts -- what you feel instinctually is going to work." Both Siegler and LeMasters agree there is no rigid set of rules in judging pilots. But Siegler says, "There are certain axioms that are traditional," that derive from precedent. Some examples:
**Shows about psychiatrists are not particularly appealing to the American public, at least in drama. "I think that by and large people watch shows to enter a different reality and escape from daily problems," says Siegler. "Most shows with psychiatrists as protagonists deal with nonvisualized material -- resolutions have to be accomplished through people talking." Siegler suggests that "The Bob Newhart Show" was popular because it was a comedy. "A liability in drama can be an asset in comedy."
**Anything dealing with psychic phenomena is difficult to make work. Science fiction seldom pulls above a 28 share, according to Siegler, and LeMasters points out that it's hard to attract an audience of 50-years-plus in sci-fi shows. What is usually successful in the movies, says Siegler, is "bad for TV, because TV invariably will disappoint" an audience expecting a feature film with complicated special effects. "Star Trek," for example, wasn't really a ratings success, says LeMasters. It attracted a vocal cult following, but, he says, never really caught on.
**Thus, characters have to be people the audience can identify with. For example, LeMasters says shows about college life are generally not successful because only 22 percent of the nation attends college, it's a voluntary condition and the audience finds it hard to hang a personal problem on a university student. After "Animal House" became a box office hit, he says, the networks came up with "Co-ed Fever," "Delta House" and "Animal House." None was successful.
**The "Flow" factor -- the transition from one show into the following program and the carryover of its audience -- is a significant consideration in scheduling and plays an important role in the fate of a pilot. LeMasters uses Wednesday prime-time for this fall as an example: " 'Mr. Merlin' (a new show) has the kid appeal and the 50-years-plus appeal. That would bring kids into 'WKRP (in Cincinnati)'. Adults from 'WKRP' flow into 'Nurse' and then 'Shannon' (a new show)."
The American audience, says LeMasters, is less concerned with esthetics than are critics and people in the industry. Viewers look for interesting and likable characters and good story lines. Ultimately, he says, there is no relationship between quality and success. "Just look at the shows on television."