Pilot error?

The news about an unaired television pilot being leaked on the Internet gives me more fuel for my frustration with myopic television networks. Global Frequency was one of many pilots that don’t make the cut each year, this one rejected as a series by The WB. But courtesy a highly illegal and thoroughly wicked leak to the BitTorrent peer-to-peer network, it has been discovered by fans who are hailing it as the second coming of The X-Files, and pressuring The WB to change their minds. (Click here for the Wired story.)

The producers and fans are harbouring the hope that Global Frequency will be resurrected as a series. But there’s another germ of an idea in this story, besides the possibility of using the Internet to test-screen pilots before making decisions on whether to pick them up.

A couple hundred pilots are produced every year, with only a small percentage ever making it to the air. (Click here for an explanation of the process.) The rejected pilots represent ready-made content with nowhere to go. Development money has been invested in a product that now has no value. So why not package some of these rejected pilots and offer them as legal downloads? Since a significant profit through sales is unlikely, networks could simply use them as a marketing tool to drive traffic to their advertising-supported websites, or to the website of a show with similar demographic appeal in order to boost its visibility.

Most unwanted pilots are probably crap. I say this with some confidence, given that a lot of what makes it to the air is crap. But even crap has a target audience out there somewhere, and since determining audience tastes is an inexact science, there are bound to be a few gems.

I’d even pay a few bucks to see The Dragans of New York, the rejected 2002 pilot Hugh Laurie cowrote and starred in before hitting it big on American TV with House, or this year’s rejected-so-far pilot Testing Bob, with Peter Dinklage and Dave Foley, or The Catch by J.J. Abrams.

By promoting the right pilot to the right fans, using the appeal of a familiar name or an interesting-sounding concept, networks could find homes for some orphan pilots with minimal effort and cost … and use them for their own nefarious marketing purposes. The WB didn’t even try to distribute Global Frequency and it found an audience. Imagine the possibilities if they’d controlled and publicized access to the download through their own site.

There might be legal obstacles to work out, or financial considerations I can’t imagine. But the biggest obstacle is likely the networks’ fear of the inevitable backlash from viewers who want to know why their pet pilot wasn’t developed as a series, when [insert your least favourite show here] was.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

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