I had the opportunity to work for two broadcast networks in my career, and they were very different environments. NBC was a bi-coastal operation, and there was some real tension between the coasts. If you read Bill Carter’s book “The Late Shift” you will see how this played out in the Letterman/Leno decision. FOX was much more West Coast-oriented, and sure, there was conflict, but the divides weren’t geographic.
When we started scheduling for NBC in the spring of 1994, the East Coast posse was again out to second-guess all our moves, and we had a big decision to make. My boss Warren Littlefield and I had to convince a risk-averse group that after one season of Must-See TV success on Thursday night, it was time to blow up the night. We needed to convince Don Ohlmeyer and the big guy, Bob Wright, of the wisdom of the move, and fortunately we had network sales on our side. The East Coast guys were being their usual annoying selves.
This was not a ratings move. The estimates showed virtually no difference between a Tuesday comedy block and some other configurations. This was about strategy, income and increasing the odds of finding another hit in one of the 8:30 or 9:30 slots. Remember: Back then scheduling mattered a lot more than it does today, and these satellite time periods were extremely valuable and attractive. That’s why avoiding time period commitments was so important.
We went back and forth discussing this move, and I always made it my business to be the last person Ohlmeyer saw before he left the building. Either Don would call me, or I would reach out to him later in the evening. I wanted the final argument every night.
It was a scary move in that we were going at ABC on a night where they had quite a bit of success, even with an aging “Roseanne” as the tentpole. After much debate, we went for it. Warren had to tell the Paramount people that we were moving their two shows, “Wings” and “Frasier,” off of Thursday to help us start a second night of MSTV. They were not happy and immediately campaigned to reverse the move. We were commitment-free, so we held our ground.
We flew to New York for the upfront and, as was the rhythm of the weekend, Warren and I holed up at 30 Rock and started writing the upfront presentation. Neither of us had any idea if this would work. By Saturday night, word was starting to get out that we were making this big move. I was at the “Saturday Night Live” dress rehearsal. There was someone from sales in the booth (there needed to be for every show), and he told me the advertisers had heard of the move and were bullish about it. It was going to be a sales windfall.
We had four satellite shows surrounding the big four. “The Martin Short Show” and the second season of “John Larroquette” went on Tuesday. On Thursday “Madman of the People” was at 9:30, and “Friends” was hammocked between “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld.” “ER” was the replacement for “LA Law.”
On Fridays, we put together “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Dateline NBC” and “Homicide.” To this day one of my favorite moves was to put “Homicide: Life on the Street” in a time period where it could prosper for five seasons without having to worry so much about its ratings. This night stayed intact for three seasons, and “Dateline” and “Homicide” remained on the night for two more years after that.
Needless to say, we returned from the upfront feeling pretty good about ourselves. That was all about to change. A while after the announcement, Don Ohlmeyer called me up to his office. He did not look happy. Ted Harbert, who was President of ABC Entertainment at the time, called to let him know that they were considering moving “Home Improvement,” the second highest-rated show on television, against “Frasier.”
To be continued …