What is the meaning of the word 'Pilot', as used for the first episode of a TV-show, implied here? Does it have anything to do with a smooth take-off?

  • 2
    The term is not exclusive to television. (See also def. 7 here.)
    – Walt
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 0:07
  • 1
    Pilot is not the same as the first episode. It is the episode that was produced before the show was greenlit, with the intent to convince the station to pick up the show. Star Trek had two pilots, because the studio liked it, but wanted changes before picking it up (and the original pilot didn't air originally), Firefly had a pilot that was shown later on during its run because the studio didn't like it as the first episode. Dollhouse's pilot was cut up and used in other episodes. And Buffy's pilot, well, let's just forget that ever happened...
    – Jasper
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 15:51
  • 1
    Let's get this thing off the ground and see if it'll fly. Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 13:11

5 Answers 5


According to Etymology Online, the term pilot has been used since the 1920s to mean "serving as a prototype". It is this sense that you get terms like pilot episode for a TV Show, or pilot program for an emerging technology.

If you go back further in time, there was an old sense of pilot as far back as the 1600s meaning "to guide". For example, in woodworking there is a common technique of drilling smaller "pilot holes", sometimes called "starter holes", in places where you plan to attach two objects by screw; the pilot holes guide the screw in straight and prevent the wood from splitting under the stress.

This earlier sense pre-dated the concept of manned flight by hundreds of years. However, the term pilot is not just used for the captain of an aircraft: the person who steers a ship or boat is also called the pilot, and their job is to "guide" the vessel along the correct path to avoid running aground, etc.

Most likely, the later sense of a pilot episode evolved out of the idea that this episode "guided" the TV show and got it "started" through the initial process of being picked up by the network.

  • 1
    Hmm. I was under the impression that the word pilot was actually a back-translation of "pilot light", which itself comes from pilot, meaning to go ahead.
    – user7812
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 0:44
  • that's possible. EO cites "pilot light" earlier than "pilot episode" but it implies that the two simply share a common origin.
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 0:46

A Pilot episode is like a Pilot light, a small flame that is used to start a bigger fire. If the pilot goes out, there can be no fire. If the pilot fails to get an audience interested, there can be no show. A Pilot light or burner is a well known term prior to the first use of pilot episode, predating it by 70 years.


Pilot (here) is basically considered in a way like an airplane that can be only flown by a pilot who is therefore considered as someone or something that helps taking off.

If we consider "pilot" in the tv shows pattern, it means that in order to convince a tv studio or a production house under whom that show is getting is made and of whom pilot is being shown, gives a greenlit.

The reasons of pilot are many, most of them redirect towards of how it helps to give a launch to a tv series by acting as its deal maker or deal breaker.

Watch any pilot an compare to it other episodes of the same tv show, and know the truth, which will give you the sense of what pilot means.

  • 3
    Hey! Thanks for posting an answer. Is there any chance you could provide a source for it? (e.g. The way that KutuluMike cited Etymology Online's definitions and explanations for the word/phrase.) Thanks!
    – ghostdog
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 22:18

According to this answer on Quora

One of the definitions of "pilot" is "1. Serving as a tentative model for future experiment or development: a pilot project." And it is this meaning that applies to a TV series. The pilot episode is made on its own as a test for whether a show might work. Then the executives at the network decide if they're going to "pick up" the show. Often, the pilot serves as the first episode, but not always. Sometimes the pilot has to be thrown out - usually due to casting issues, sometimes locations. Game of Thrones is a recent example of this.

  • "Game of Thrones is a recent example of this." - Well, it might have been when this answer was first posted on Quora over four years ago - Oct 1, 2011
    – MrWhite
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 14:56
  • 5
    This answer doesn't show any efforts done from you side and a complete copy paste of answer from Quora without mentioned the source of your information, which is not allowed here . Refer this meta post for details :Use of copied content
    – Ankit Sharma
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 6:37

The term pilot itself has been used since the 1920s to mean “serving as a prototype”. An episode is produced, to present before Television Networks. After a Network Decides to buys the show, the rest of the shoot starts. There is no relevance between an aeroplane or auto-mobile pilot and this pilot. This pilot means “serving as a prototype”. It’s a Homograph. So don’t get confused. Check this article for more information

  • 1
    I'm not sure how this adds anything to the existing answers.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented May 25, 2021 at 8:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .