The "pilot" was apparently made on almost zero money in just a few days a couple of weeks ago.
"But how?" you may ask, possibly after only a moment's pause to reflect on the gloriously demented decision to cast Billy Zane as Ishamael, the Betrayer of Hope.
Robert Jordan sold the film and TV rights to Wheel of Time back in the mid-2000s to Red Eagle Entertainment, a rights-handling company set up specifically to get the franchise expanded into TV, film comic books and video games. To say they failed spectacularly is an understatement. The Wheel of Time comic book was delayed multiple times and left incomplete. Red Eagle tried to crowdfund a mobile Wheel of Time game but asked for an obscene amount of money and then failed to publicise it anywhere, resulting in an unmitigated disaster. Red Eagle then won back some respect by commissioning Obsidian Entertainment, one of the best video games companies in the business, to work on a single-player RPG. However, they then failed to produce any money to fund the game. They somehow managed to sign a deal with Electronic Arts in which EA agreed to release the game but not fund it, one of the most inexplicably baffling failures of corporate dealing I've ever encountered.
Of course, the real money was in a film/TV adaptation. Red Eagle's initial attempts to produce a film script based on The Eye of the World were not successful, with a few people who managed to read the script declaring it unbelievably awful. With the company running out of money, Red Eagle re-sold the film and TV rights to Universal Pictures in 2008 in return for Red Eagle retaining a production credit.
Those rights were not forever, and on Wednesday 11 February 2015 (that's this Wednesday, people) the rights would have reverted to the Bandersnatch Group, aka the Jordan Estate, overseen by Robert Jordan's widow Harriet McDougal. During the last few months of his life Robert Jordan had become very irritated with Red Eagle's handling of the Wheel of Time project and one of his very last blog posts was spent castigating them. Fan appreciation for Red Eagle's efforts cooled noticeably at that point. At Worldcon this past August, I moderated a Wheel of Time convention panel with Harriet in attendance and she explained that a number of other Hollywood studios were very interested in the property. With Game of Thrones a huge hit, other networks were looking for a fantasy project and as the biggest-selling post-Tolkien epic fantasy series, WoT was clearly the #1 desired property. With less-successful works like Shannara and The Kingkiller Chronicle getting optioned, it's very likely that WoT would be snatched up by another (probably far more competent) company in short order.
This "pilot" appears to have been made specifically to forestall such a move. With this "pilot" made, Red Eagle (Universal's involvement is highly unclear at the moment) may try to argue that they have succeeded in getting the series made and thus can retain the film rights so they can, er, sit on them for a few more years and prevent a series getting made by actually competent personnel. That sound you can hear right now is that of several hundred lawyers reaching for their pencil sharpeners.
Harriet McDougal's response to all of this:
"This morning brought startling news. A “pilot” for a Wheel of Time series, the "pilot" being called Winter Dragon, had appeared at 1:30 in the morning, East Coast time, on FXX TV, a channel somewhere in the 700s (founded to concentrate on comedy, according to the Washington Post).
It was made without my knowledge or cooperation. I never saw the script. No one associated with Bandersnatch Group, the successor-in-interest to James O. Rigney, was aware of this.
Bandersnatch has an existing contract with Universal Pictures that grants television rights to them until this Wednesday, February 11 – at which point these rights revert to Bandersnatch.
I see no mention of Universal in the “pilot”. Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan’s estate, informed of this in any way.
I am dumbfounded by this occurrence, and am taking steps to prevent its reoccurrence."
Update: The director of the "pilot", Seda James, passed away just a few days ago. Condolences to his friends and family.
Update #2: Red Eagle have commented on the "pilot", confirming that they indeed made it to avoid losing the screen rights. They also confirm that they are pushing ahead with a plan to make a big-budget TV show, apparently because Game of Thrones is a big hit. No further word is given on if a reputable network is interested, or how they may proceed without known producers or writers on board.