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.
We weren’t expecting great things from the “Friends” pilot. It was not a strong-testing show, and it had two other obstacles. That May, FOX announced a comedy about a group of single twentysomethings in Chicago called “Wild Oats.” It was eerily similar to “Friends,” down to a hangout where the gang congregated.
The comparisons between the two shows occupied most of the coverage. We felt we had the better show with the stronger cast, but it didn’t matter. Paul Rudd was in the cast of “Wild Oats,” but I took solace in the fact that notorious show killer Paula Marshall was one of the leads.
The second obstacle was a bit more daunting. It turned out that Jennifer Aniston was in “second position” on “Friends.” She had also starred in a CBS series called “Muddling Through” that had yet to air, and what second position meant was that if the CBS show moved forward, she was legally committed to that show and we would need to replace her on “Friends.” Although “Muddling Through” did not make the fall schedule, the Eye net decided to air the episodes on Saturday night in the summer on 1994, prior to the premiere of “Friends.”
The morning that CBS announced that they were airing the Aniston show, we were in a Current meeting in Burbank. We knew that if these episodes got any sort of a rating, CBS may well order more just to block Aniston from boing part of the “Friends” cast. My boss Warren Littlefield looked at me and said, referring to “Muddling Through,” “Kill it!”
Although CBS put the show on Saturday night, I scheduled an original Danielle Steel movie (which always popped a rating) against the premiere and aired second-run Steel movies over the next few weeks to squash it. The strategy worked.
There was one more glitch before “Friends” got on the air. One afternoon Jamie Tarses, our top developer at the time, came into my office quite upset. Back then we were trying to do away with opening themes songs, and the “Friends” producers (Marta Kauffman, Kevin Bright and David Crane — more on them later) wanted an opening theme. Jamie played it for me and told me Don Ohlmeyer didn’t like it and was resisting even allowing an opening theme for the show. She asked if I would go up to Don’s office with her and support the song and the positioning. I thought the opening was fun and creative. Regarding the song itself, I really had no opinion, but if it was important to her and the producers, sure, I’d go into the lion’s den with her.
We caught Don in a good mood. As was usual, he asked if I would take responsibility if this turned out to be a mistake. This was the ritual between us. I said I would, and the rest is history.
Although it was given the cushy 8:30 hammock between “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld,” my Spidey senses told me that “Friends” seemed to be performing better than your average comedy given such a primo time slot. Also, the show’s rating built over the first few weeks, and the quality of the episodes kept getting better and better.
The real test came when I gave “Friends” a one-time-only at-bat behind “Frasier” on Tuesday night. If my memory serves me, we were getting close to the November sweep, and “The John Larroquette Show” needed a “hit,” which was scheduling slang for we didn’t have an original episode. I thought there was nothing to lose in seeing how “Friends” would do outside of its hammock. It performed above the level of the “Larroquette” originals.
It was time to take “Friends” to the next level and give it the even stronger hammock of the slot between our two biggest shows, “Seinfeld” and “ER.” We decided to make the move later in the new year. We cut the order short for “Madman of the People,” the Seinfeld lead-out, and in March 1995 moved “Friends” behind “Seinfeld.” To no one’s surprise, we improved the time period performance and at 8:30, inserted what would be the first in a long line of mediocre comedies in the 8:30 and 9:30 slots on our Must-See TV nights. “Hope and Gloria,” welcome to the party.
To be continued…