The Masked Scheduler is looking back at the scheduling and business decisions that built the Must-See TV lineup on NBC. You can go here to read previous installments.
The 1999-2000 season would be my final one at NBC. I entered the season for the first time without both Warren Littlefield and Don Ohlmeyer. Scott Sassa was the new Don, and Garth Ancier returned to become president of NBC Entertainment. I knew I would never have the respect and relationship that I had with Warren and Don.
We went into the season with only 10 comedies on our schedule. That was eight less from the peak 18-comedy sked. We had five “Datelines” and were beginning to rely a bit more on dramas.
There were two new John Wells shows on our schedule (“Third Watch” and “The West Wing”), both of which had successful runs on the network. “Providence” was starting its first full season, and we were beginning the first of several “Law & Order” colonized hits with “SVU.”
I may have talked about this, but probably my last contribution to the Must-See TV era was to give “SVU” its title. Dick Wolf pitched the show to us with the title “Sex Crimes.” We ordered it to series without a script and never saw a pilot before we announced the schedule. Needless to say, our sales people were freaking out about having to sell a show called “Sex Crimes,” even if it was from Emmy-winning Dick Wolf.
We finally received a script, and there on the first page was a description of the unit as the Special Victims Unit. We met to discuss the script, and I asked everyone why don’t we call the show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and make our poor sales group happy? No arguments, and the rest is history.
For the first time that I could remember, ownership trumped quality (in my opinion), and we scheduled an NBC Studio relationship dramedy “Cold Feed” (based on a British series) over a pilot that I loved called “Chaos Theory.”
Finally, after much agonizing, we put a drama from Judd Apatow — “Freaks and Geeks” — on Saturday at 8 p.m. Set in the early 1980s, the show centered around two groups of social misfits at a Michigan high school.
Back in December, two NBC development executives came into my office and asked if I would read a script and help them defend it to Ohlmeyer and Sassa. “Freaks and Geeks” was a revelation. I gave it to the Masked Daughter to read, and she also loved it. I worked on several execs over Christmas vacation. When we came back from the holidays in January, Scott Sassa assembled his senior staff to talk about the pilot scripts. There was widespread support for “F&G,” and we ordered it to pilot.
One of the unsung heroes (or is it heroines) of Must-See TV was Lori Openden, our head of casting, who now has that gig at The CW (need I say more?). Lori helped put together a “F&G” cast that included James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, Busy Philipps, John Francis Daley and Jason Segel. The pilot was dark but, in the end, uplifting. There was a feeling we needed to get this show on the air. Then Columbine happened.
As a group, I don’t remember ever agonizing over a decision as we did over “Freaks and Geeks.” Do we walk away from it? Do we save it for midseason? Will it be seen as us exploiting an American tragedy (even though the show’s “freaks” were really harmless)? We finally decided it was too good a show to walk away from or leave on the shelf.
The other problem was there was really no slot on the schedule that made sense for the show. Although we loved it, we thought it was a small show so we put it Saturday at 8 p.m., figuring it was a low-profile time period and it could sit there. I sort of did the same thing for “Homicide,” which had a long, successful run by hiding it in the Friday 10 p.m. time period.
“Freaks and Geeks” was not going to be a high priority show for our promo group, with “The West Wing,” “Third Watch” and “SVU” getting the push. As Don Ohlmeyer always told us, “You can’t love all your children the same.” As a result, we were completely blindsided by the overwhelmingly positive reviews for “F&G.” The day before it premiered, we were all looking at each other stunned and not knowing what to do.
At the end of the day (and remember this was 18 years ago) “Freaks and Geeks” probably was not going to “work.” We were also reminded that critical response gets you only a little. “Providence” had been trashed in January 1999 and was a hit for the Peacock.
I think “F&G” turned out to be a very dark show, and it’s possible the events of Columbine didn’t help. Rick Ludwin, our specials, “Seinfeld” and late-night guy, hit it on the head. We were agonizing over the show at an afternoon executive meeting, and Rick, in his low-key way, said, “This show needs little victories.” That resonated. We actually did an episode with that in mind, and we even put that episode on a different night, but it was too late. That episode was not the show the creators wanted to do.
“Freaks and Geeks” did not make it through the season. I had another run-in with Judd Apatow when I got to FOX and he gave us “Undeclared.” That also failed, and in an article, Judd blamed me for his failures at both networks and said he would not do network television ever again. Uh, you’re welcome?
There’s one more final chapter.