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 full Must-See TV strategy was in place was we entered the 1995-96 season. The house was built, and now all we need to do was rearrange the furniture. The driver of the strategy was comedies. We started the prior season with 12 comedies on the schedule and increased that to 16 in the fall of ’95.
Twenty years ago, scheduling still mattered a lot, so the game was to pair up a new comedy with something established. Six new comedies (seven if you count “Hope and Gloria,” which premiered in March 1995) were in the 8:30 or 9:30 satellite slots, paired up with established successes. We had comedies on five of the seven nights, and three nights — Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday — had a four-comedy block.
Comedies were sales-friendly and repeatable, and given the half-hour format, we were able to launch more potentially successful comedies in the adjacent half-hour. Sold as the Must-See TV brand, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
This was especially true of our Thursday comedy block and “ER” at 10 p.m. Thursday night was the most attractive to advertisers, especially automakers and movies, and the CPMs we charged on the night were the highest in the business. Thursday night was also the first night of the crucial (back then) sweeps periods (November, February and May), and we dubbed our Thursday schedule the “greasy pole.” We would start the sweep with a dominant lead, and the other networks would then try to catch up — only to be faced with another Thursday night ratings onslaught.
We moved “Friends” to 8 p.m. on Thursday, and given that it was only in its second season, the license fee (NBC did not own it, Warner Bros. did) was reasonable. We put two new comedies in the satellite slots — “The Single Guy” and “Caroline in the City” — and with “Seinfeld” as the tentpole, it was the most profitable night on television.
We parlayed the enormous young adult appeal of Thursday night into creating the most profitable night in NBC’s history up to that point. In January 1995 ABC had the Super Bowl and attempted to launch a new drama after the post-game. “Extreme,” some sort of rescue show, premiered after the game and lasted two months of Thursday night. The morning after the game, at our daily 2:30 meeting, I went into one of my rants about how putting something new after the Super Bowl just showed more people that it sucked quicker than premiering it on its regular night. Very few series premiered and succeeded after the game, and if they did, it was as much that they were put in a solid time period (a la “The Wonder Years”) and would have succeeded regardless.
As an alternative to premiering a new series, I suggested that we go to the “Seinfeld” gang and offer them the post-Super Bowl slot for the 1996 game on NBC — and that we announce it in the upfront and make a killing. We would ask them to do a one-hour episode. Everyone thought it was a good idea. Warren Littlefield went to see Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who immediately shot down it down.
Honestly, we were not surprised. That same season we came up with a theme for Thursday night “Blackout Thursday.” All the Thursday comedies were in New York City, and we pitched a night where a city power failure was factored into the stories of all the shows. The other three comedies bought in, but “Seinfeld” passed. We still marketed the night that way, but Jerry and Larry just did their thing.
After being shot down by “Seinfeld,” we went to “Friends,” who embraced the idea. I think they were thrilled that we had so much faith in a freshman comedy to offer them the slot, and they delivered with an All-Star hour. “The One After the Super Bowl” featured Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Marcel the monkey, and the rating and the money we generated for the game, the postgame (which held on to all the 18-49s waiting for “Friends”) and the episode made it the most profitable night in NBC’s history.
The strategy of protecting new comedies by putting them behind established shows resulted in five freshmen shows returning for another season. In addition to “The Single Guy” and “Caroline in the City,” “NewsRadio” (hammocked between “Wings” and “Frasier” on Tuesdays) returned for the 1996-97 season. Two midseason shows, “Boston Common” and “3rd Rock from the Sun” were also renewed.
We also had some family comedies on Sunday night from 7-8 p.m., and “Brother Love” featuring the Lawrence brothers (remember them?) also got a second season pickup.
More about those shows … after the break.