A popular television show’s hit status seems effortless. Of course Friends and Seinfeld are hilarious. How could anyone think otherwise? Mad Men is a winner. Who could say no to Don Draper?
But television is a rough business, and virtually every hit show earns its stripes before making it. Hundreds of scripts run the gauntlet of competition, Hunger Games-style, until just one or two hit shows emerge in a season. The development process starts over every May, leaving many casualties behind.
“The most confounding thing about the TV business is the amount of waste,” Noah Hawley, creator of cancelled shows The Unusuals and My Generation, told the New York Times last year. “But the problem is, the system perpetuates itself.”
Shows have obstacles at every step, creative and executive alike. Each major network may commission as many as 150 scripts during the summer pilot season. Maybe 20 of the selected scripts become pilot episodes, one or two of which go on to be hits. Scripts and pilot episodes that didn’t become shows are usually discarded, viewed as damaged goods by executives.
Can you imagine TV reruns without Rachel and Ross? How about Sunday night drama with no Madison Avenue ad men? Here are five beloved TV shows that almost didn’t make it to your screen.
1. Breaking Bad
In 2005, creator Vince Gilligan, known for his work on The X-Files, came up with an idea for a show about a suburban dad who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and tries drug dealing. While pitching the concept to a cable network president, Gilligan discovered — to his consternation — a show called Weeds existed. In the Showtime hit, which was new that season, a suburban mom tries her hand at drug dealing.
“Not my happiest moment in the business,” Gilligan writes in a column for Newsweek. “All those weeks of hard work down the drain! Or so I thought.”
The two shows turned out to be quite different in execution and have both managed to enjoy success.
“It seems — for a writer, at least — marijuana and meth are the psychopharmaceutical equivalents of Greek comedy and tragedy masks,” Gilligan writes. “One leads its characters to laughter, the other to tears. As such, the TV dial is big enough to contain both shows.”
The creator of the hit show about a meth-cooking high school teacher describes himself as “eternally grateful” that he didn’t know Weeds existed before he pitched the concept.
“I would have said to myself (and I’ve said this a lot), “Damn! All the good ideas are already taken!”
Courteney Cox was almost Rachel, the show was almost called Six of One and Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston almost didn’t join the cast.
NBC’s now-iconic hit about six friends living in New York City almost didn’t happen in so many ways. Friends went through several incarnations in the creative process and weathered disapproval from executives, who hated the pilot and thought the show was doomed.
“The Friends pilot didn’t test great,” Preston Beckman, former NBC executive vice president of program planning, told Vanity Fair last May.
Of course, the rest is history — Friends went on to last 10 seasons and become one of NBC’s most successful sitcoms.
3. The Big Bang Theory
The comedy about a couple of nerds and a hot would-be actress was a casualty of the pilot season the first time around. The Big Bang Theory, which is now in its sixth season, languished for a while as what Variety calls a “busted pilot.” The show whose repeated episodes are now topping American Idol in ratings was actually piloted twice before it was ordered in 2007.
4. Mad Men
Believe it or not, the idea for Mad Men was initially pitched to HBO, and the cable network turned it down (I’m guessing Don and Peggy weren’t at that meeting). Mad Men, which is now in its sixth season, went to AMC instead and become a four-time Emmy winner for Best Drama Series. AMC is on a winning streak now, following up Mad Men’s success with two more hit dramas, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
When the Seinfeld pilot first came to NBC, it was reportedly pronounced “too New York, too Jewish” by Brandon Tartikoff, then-president of NBC entertainment. Tartikoff declined to order more than four episodes of the show.
“An order for six is considered a slap in the face,” Alan Horn, head of Castle Rock, the production company that makes and owns Seinfeld, told The Baltimore Sun in a 1998 interview.
“In the history of pilot reports, Seinfeld has got to be one of the worst of all time,” former NBC executive Warren Littlefield said in a recent interview. “I have it next to my desk; it says overall evaluation ‘weak.’”
Audiences didn’t like Seinfeld at first, and the show did badly against Home Improvement, its competition at the time, but NBC decided to take a risk with another season.
“We just took a deep breath and ordered 13 more (episodes),” Littlefield said.
Seinfeld became the most popular sitcom of the decade, finishing first among sitcoms in the Nielsen ratings for its last four seasons, a feat only previously accomplished by I Love Lucy, All in the Family and The Cosby Show.
Jerry Seinfeld still has the letter with the four-episode order from NBC hanging on his wall.