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Pilot Takes Flight for Trio

Trio's Brilliant but Cancelled: Pilot Season
should prove fascinating to TV buffs eager for a peek behind programmers' closed doors.

The hourlong special offers a look at pilot season, the Byzantine rite of spring that culminates in the broadcasters' annual upfront selling season.

Producers spend each summer pitching ideas to programmers, who decide by October those that will become scripts. Ultimately, a mere handful of each network's 30-plus pilots reach the fall lineups.

Network execs Warren Littlefield and Doug Herzog — as well as producers Garry Marshall, Conan O'Brien, Tom Fontana and Darren Star — are among those interviewed about the process that Herzog labels "antiquated."

Interestingly, veteran producers blame Detroit for the fall season's timing and the May upfronts, since September is when its new cars are introduced and auto makers need to decide by spring what shows to sponsor.

The creatives also blast the process. Marshall Hershowitz (thirtysomething) is kindest, calling it "a terrible system, but what's better?"

Although the creatives defend the likes of The 900 Lives of Jackie Frye, Beat Cops, Lookwell, Heat Vision & Jack, Sheriff Who?
and The Boys, we think those projects deserved their scrap-heap status, based on the mediocre clips we saw.

Even the best of the four full pilots previewed —Diner
with Paul Reiser (Sept. 5) and L.A. Confidential
with Kiefer Sutherland (Sept. 1) – aren't series material.

Besides scripts, casting is key. The narrator wonders how All in the Family and
Murphy Brown
would have fared with the stars originally proposed: Mickey Rooney as Archie Bunker and Heather Locklear in the Murphy Brown
title role.

Come April, pilots undergo the dreaded testing process, where such hit series as ABC's thirtysomething
and NBC's The Seinfeld Chronicles
scored poorly. In the latter-day Seinfeld's evaluation, consumers called the sitcom "weak" and its characters "losers," Littlefield recalls.

DreamWorks scored best with a busted pilot. After ABC vetoed it, Dear Diary
(starring Cheers' Bebe Neuwirth), the studio released it in theaters, where it won an Oscar.

Trio's Pilot Season
bows Sept. 1 at 9 p.m. with encores on Sept. 2 at 11 p.m. and at 10 p.m. on Sept. 5 and Sept. 7.