Pilot Season Lingo Guide (Including the 'Scary' Second Position), Plus a List of Picked-Up Pilots

Pilot season is here, meaning the networks are taking stock of their needs for 2012-13 and getting the ball rolling toward filling any gaps.
With development season about to get really interesting — meaning it’s time to start booking living, breathing actors for these wannabe series! — we thought it might help to define some of the lingo that gets tossed around.

Here are the basic terms you should know as pilot season forges on.

Also: Review Our Ongoing List of This Season’s Pilots for ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC

PILOT | You really want get basic, eh? When a network orders (or “picks up”) a pilot, they’re asking its writers/producers/studio to cast and produce a very close facsimile of what their series’ first episode will look like. Each pilot is reviewed by network brass, and then typically put into testing before a decision is made on whether it will land on the schedule (for fall or midseason).

PLANTED SPIN-OFF | Also called a “backdoor” pilot, this is an episode of an existing series that sets up a prospective offshoot. Last year, Bones introduced a pal of Booth’s who went on to become The Finder. And if The Office this spring conspicuously centers an episode on the Schrute beet farm’s bed and breakfast, that’d be a planted pilot for the Dwight-centric spin-off. Free History Lesson: That Brady Bunch episode with new neighbor Ken Berry adopting three orphans? That was a planted pilot, for a spin-off to be called Kelly’s Kids that never took off. Same with that Las Vegas episode set at the Montecito’s New Orleans outpost manned by Dennis Hopper.

DRAMA/COMEDY PRESENTATION | Occasionally, due to time or budget restraints, a network won’t order a full-on pilot but rather a “presentation” offering a not-quite-complete drama or a taste of what a sitcom would look like. The CW’s Hellcats was a recent instance of a lean drama presentation that earned a series order.

CAST-CONTINGENT/CAST CONTINGENCY | Sometimes a network will order a pilot with the caveat that production can’t start until a suitable, usually “name” actor has been cast in the starring role. (A possible translation: “The premise is iffy, but a big star could really help sell it.”) So you’ll sometimes hear that with the casting of so-and-so, “the cast contingency has been lifted” on a pilot. (The sorta flip-side is an “if-come deal,” meaning the major players are pre-signed and rarin’ to go the instant the network OKs the pilot itself.)

SECOND POSITION | These are perhaps the two words that makes fans of “bubble” shows most nervous each spring, as stars from underperforming series start booking pilots (provided they get the OK from their current bosses). The term literally means that the pilot role is in second position (or priority), should their current show be renewed. For example, going back to 2010: CBS’ Mad Love pilot was in second position for Tyler Labine, who at the time was (well, theoretically) waiting to hear on Sons of Tucson‘s fate. (Similarly, Sons of Tucson the year prior was in second position to Labine’s Reaper.) More recently, Damon Wayans Jr. last spring booked a lead on Fox’s New Girl, but when ABC granted Happy Endings a Season 2, New Girl had to replace his character. An actor booking a second position gig doesn’t always mean his/her current show is doomed… though it often tends to. Variation: A “safe second” means the pilot’s bosses have been discreetly all-but-assured that the actor in question will be available.

UPFRONTS | This is the week in mid-May when the networks take turns unveiling their schedules for next season — including the pilots that have been ordered to series. With rare exception (e.g. Fox’s Breaking In), if your show doesn’t make the cut here, it’s (gulp) officially a goner.

And now, our running update of pilots ordered for the 2012-13 TV season, going network by network….


Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Sam says:

    Very few peaked my interest, most sound really bland based on premise alone but I’ll have to wait and see how they look after/IF they’ve been picked up.
    Devious Maids
    Honorable mentions: 666 Park Ave (horrible title), Gotham, American Judy (hate the title though), Beauty and the Beast, New Normal (Eeek, not very interesting but all of Ryan Murphy’s shows start incredibly strong before turning into crap, he’s usually a great concept man, this one seems like it feel better as a movie, I don’t feel it clicking with audiences, especially (straight) males)
    Super Fun Night
    Honorable mention: Applebaum (title is boring as hell and it really depends on the execution and the lead actress), Queen (sounds like a total “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” riff though)
    Honorable mention: Shelter, Beauty and the Beast (I’ll watch the pilot and I’m definitely more interested in this if both BatB’s are picked up to compare them, I do think ABC’s version sounds better), The Selection (a desperate Hunger Games wannabe, even more obvious than Queen — I’d also watch the pilot out of curiosity)
    Untitled Kevin Williamson Drama
    None in particular but Daddy’s Girl and Beautiful People would fit as “honorable mentions” as I’ll have to hear more of them to be interested.

  2. Nicolas says:

    What’s the statuts of The Incredible Hulk directed by Guillermo del Toro, announced one year ago for the fall 2012 ?

  3. Amy says:

    Prairie Dogs sounds exactly like the season one episode of Friends, The One With Fake Monica.

  4. AshburnStadium says:

    What happened to the reboot of Bewitched that CBS ordered?

  5. Nick says:

    A lot of these pilots sound really good, hope they get picked up

  6. Anna says:

    what interest me:
    NBC: Dowardly Mobile
    FOX: Like Father…
    ABC: Only Fools and Horses
    CBS: Super Fun Night
    NBC: Frontier
    FOX: Kevin Williamson serial killer drama
    ABC: Last Resort
    CBS: Untitled Ralph Lamb project
    CW: Cult

  7. JJ says:

    The title of this post says that there is list of picked up pilots but i don’t find it. Why?

  8. Collagen AU says:

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  9. Angela says:

    All of the new Cbs shows sound lame and will flop before they
    hit the air!! Plus why mess with what works for random crap!!!!
    Keep the shows that are already on ! Except For Survivor! The Good
    wife ! Csi ! And leave the decent ones where they are as promised!!!!

  10. Heather Hintz says:

    Justin Hartley (Smallville) is one of the lead actors on the pilot “First Cut”. He has been sorely missed along with Tom Welling. I am very interested in seeing this new show!

    p.s. Is Tom Welling doing any acting these days? I know when he left “to pursue Other Options”, he was Directing, maybe producing? Anyone know anything about him? That would be nice to see him. Maybe he will come back to the small screen, or even the Big screen whichever.Yes?