A backdoor pilot is, according to Wikipedia and Variety magazine, a “standalone movie” broadcast in order to gauge how popular it would be as a television series before television execs will commit to ordering episodes or full seasons of the show.
Examples of these included the hit mid-90’s series, “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman” and the SyFy summer hit series, “Eureka” all began as stand-alone movies in order to test the viewing waters, so to speak.
Another (more common) concept of a backdoor pilot
But a stand-alone movie isn’t the only way to introduce a potential series. More recently, as spin-offs of current hit shows begin to really spiral into the norm, producers are using the concept of utilizing a dedicated episode to introduce a new series concept and cast to their target audience. The episode’s ratings, popularity, and general buzz gives television execs a general idea how a series might do in it’s own timeslot and running on its own two legs.
One prime example of this is the birth of “NCIS”, one of the nation’s leading shows (now in it’s 8th season on CBS) whose rankings continue to rise with each season. It began as a concept on the hit series “JAG”. In turn, the direct spin-off from “NCIS”, which is “NCIS: Los Angeles”, began as a two-part episode entitled “Legend”.
Other examples include the “CSI” (CBS) shows, the variations on the “Stargate” (SyFy) concept, and who can forget “Xena: The Warrior Princess” which derived from the wildly popular “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”.
The most recent example of this type of non-pilot, pilot was the introduction of the cast of “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior”. Back in April of 2010, the “Criminal Minds” episode “The Fight” gave way to another BAU team, one with a more gritty possibility. The series was ordered and will premier sometime in 2011.
Do backdoor pilots guarantee a new series?
A “Brady Bunch” episode had a lead in to a similar concept but with adopted children of different races and cultures who would deal with a bigoted neighbor. The series concept was probably ahead of its time and wasn’t picked up. “MacGyver” opened the door to a spin-off in an episode called “The Coltons”, which was also never picked up. “Diagnosis: Murder” gave rise to several potential spin-offs, none of which caught on enough to make a series.
And even if the series is picked up, it doesn’t always mean it will be a successful series nor does it mean that the original concept won’t be re-written. On “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”, for example, the character of Ensign Ro from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was supposed to be a major character for the series. Instead, when Michelle Forbes didn’t sign on for “Star Trek: DS9”, the concept was rewritten to include Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor).
The backdoor pilot has become a given, so much so in fact that viewers almost expect (and anticipate) such a lead in to a new spin-off series when it seems that spin-offs are taking over the small screen these days.