The Hot Potato pilot
Taped December 1, 1983 for NBC
The pilot was nearly identical to the format seen on the series with minor differences. In the main game, each question pays $500, with 2 out of 3 still winning the game. The main game doesn't use survey questions. The addition of surveys was a bit of post-pilot tinkering to expand the well of usable question material.
In the bonus round, each member of the team plays a single question individually, with no risk, for $200 in "stake money" apiece. Once the three stake money questions have been played, the team is asked four more questions, each worth double-or-nothing, with the option to quit after each question, for a top possible prize of $9,600.
Hot Potato had been something of a pet project for Barry & Enright Productions in 1983. They initially pitched the show to CBS, with co-creator Jack Barry hosting a run-through game with four-player teams at Television City in the summer of 1983. CBS passed, but NBC was intrigued enough to request a full-fledged pilot.
The next step was casting an emcee. According to a TV Guide story, NBC initially requested a hip, good-looking emcee to host, but was dissatisfied with what they saw during preparations for the taping. So NBC simply asked if Bill Cullen was available to host, and Bill came aboard for the new endeavor.
Oddly enough, despite the fact that there was almost certainly no intention to air this pilot, it included a contestant call, with Charlie O'Donnell asking for "manicurists, Marines, mommies, or mechanics." Bill cheerfully encouraged the audience to form their own group if they didn't fit any of those categories. "Something that starts with J, maybe," Bill suggested.
Although it's not a perfect match for what was seen in the aired series, NBC and the producers were apparently pleased with how this pilot turned out because very little changed when the show launched the following month. The familiar open sees the contestants introducing each other and Bill greeting a surprisingly frenzied-sounding audience. The impressive theme music from Hal Hidey isn't in place just yet. A very-similar sounding, repetitive synth piece is in its place, and Barry & Enright re-purposed the music from a previous game show, Play the Percentages, for cues in the pilot. For the closing credits, a disco song, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" by Sylvester, was used, and Hidey unmistakably used it for inspiration when composing the theme that the series went with.