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….


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