A pilot is the test episode of a new television show. Every year, Los Angeles actors look forward to what is termed "pilot season." During the spring, production companies with expressions of interest from TV networks produce these test episodes. Pilots are produced under Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) contracts. Actors in pilots are guaranteed a certain minimum rate.
Pilot Process Defined
Every year, dozens, if not hundreds, of anxious producers pitch show ideas to TV networks. The show may be a sitcom, drama or children's program. Occasionally, new soap operas are pitched. Most of these pitches go nowhere. A few, however, result in an expression of interest from the network. The network will ask the producer to create a test episode of the show. The test episode may be screened for focus-group or test audiences, as well as before network decision-makers. If the network likes the pilot, it will usually order six to 13 episodes of the show. The pilot then typically serves as the first episode when the series makes it to air.
Actors and Pilots
Being cast in a pilot can be an exciting moment for an unknown actor. Naturally, the wish is that the show will be "picked up" by the network and go on to become an audience hit and advertising revenue bonanza.
Ideally, as program revenue grows season by season, so will the actor's renegotiated paycheck, as was the case with such sitcoms as "Friends" and "Seinfeld." However, many pilots flop with network execs and never make it to air. Actors have been known to shoot pilots for several different shows in one season, none of which were picked up. For these actors, the opportunity to work on their craft and receive their daily or weekly pay for the effort has to suffice.
Contract actors under AFTRA rules are paid according to the length of the program and the number of lines assigned. Most pilots for series television are no more than an hour long. For a 30-minute show, the daily principal actor pay would be $797. That rate rises to $1,072 for a 60-minute show. An actor who speaks less than five lines, however, earns just $383 per day for a half-hour show and $473 for an hourlong pilot. (All figures are as of June 2011.)
Screen Actors Guild (SAG) minimum rates apply regardless of the number of lines assigned to an actor. The size of an actor's role in the pilot may, however, determine the number of days of work. For a day performer under SAG contract, the pay is $809. A weekly performer gets a minimum of $2,808, as of June 2011.