What Is a Pilot Episode?

cartoon of a Business man filming a commercial

Getty Images / Andy MacGregor

A TV pilot or pilot episode of a TV show is a standalone episode that a creator or producer will create to show to network executives in Hollywood. Most of the time a network foots the bill for a pilot episode based on the creator's pitch, a description of what the TV show will be like.

A pilot episode is used to try to sell an entire series to that network. Sometimes, based on the pilot episode, networks buy just a handful of episodes. Sometimes a network buys a full season of a TV show, which is usually 22 episodes. Many times, the later episodes of a series will be very different from the TV pilot, with new cast members or characters or locales. If there are no major changes, the pilot episode becomes the first episode of the series.

Pilot Season

Pilot season in Hollywood is generally considered to be January through sometime in the spring. After networks accept pitches in the fall, TV pilot episodes are cast and recorded, beginning in approximately January. Generally they wrap-up in March or April and the networks decide which ones will get the greenlight to continue producing episodes. Around May, networks hold upfronts and present their new series to the press and ad agencies.


South Park

Spirit of Christmas was sort of a pilot episode for South Park. Spirit of Christmas was sent around Hollywood as a holiday card. After executives at Comedy Central saw it, they approached Matt Stone and Trey Parker about developing a full series, based on that animated short.

The Simpsons

"Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" is the unofficial pilot episode for The Simpsons. FOX waited to see how the full episode would do in the ratings, compared to the animated shorts of The Simpsons on The Tracey Ullman Show.

Adventure Time

The pilot episode for Adventure Time was an animated short that starred Pen and Jake, rather than Finn and Jake. (Pen, after the show's creator, Pendleton Ward.) In the pilot, Pen and Jake rescue Princess Bubblegum from the Ice King. As an example of a change in cast, John Kassir (Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness) voiced Ice King in the pilot, but Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants) took over the role for the rest of the series.

Invader Zim

The pilot episode of Nickelodeon's Invader Zim starred veteran voice-over actor Billy West as Zim. But creator Jhonen Vasquez felt his voice was too recognizable from his role as Fry on Futurama, and recast the role with actor Richard Horvitz, who played Billy on The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy.

American Dad!

Seth MacFarlane and Matt Weitzman dreamt up American Dad! after the 2000 election. Originally, Family Guy was cancelled and MacFarlane was able to be hands on, but when Family Guy was revived, MacFarlane passed American Dad! off to Weitzman and Mike Barker.