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 1995-96 primetime season was when those of us at the Peacock network were starting to have some fun. As the scheduler, I felt I had built as close as I could come to my vision of a dream schedule. My mantra in programming was “Reduce the cost of failure and invest in success,” and I believed our schedule accomplished that.
First, and most importantly, it was sales-friendly with 16 comedies and several quality dramas. Virtually every comedy at 8:30 or 9:30 led out of an established comedy. Lead-ins still mattered back then, so the probability of any of these satellite shows tanking was pretty slim.
Second, there were an additional seven hours of the schedule that were pretty much failure-proof. We had two movie nights that were a combination of made-for-TV movies, theatricals (which I would purchase along with our head of business affairs, John Agoglia) and event miniseries from our movie and miniseries empress, Lindy DeKoven. In addition to the movie nights we had three hours of “Dateline” on the schedule (Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday).
We had established programming at 10 p.m. across the schedule, so our affiliated stations had strong ratings leading into their local news.
The sales-friendly nature of the schedule meant I had the support of our sales department in keeping it going and making the moves that would make NBC quite profitable through the rest of the ’90s.
We had a vision for our comedies — young adult singles living in New York — and that seemed to be resonating with the audience. We were delivering a young (18-49), urban, upscale, college-educated audience, and the biggest shows were on the night most valued by advertisers — Thursday.
I thought a lot about why “Friends” resonated the way it did. Of course, a big part of the show’s success was the casting and the writing, but there are a lot of shows that hit those two targets and don’t break out. “Friends” found the secret sauce. For me, why “Friends” exploded was this (please don’t share, thanx): You either wanted to become them, were them, or remembered being them. In my opinion, “Friends” hit every demo target. I think that’s what to this day, young people keep discovering the show.
Our goal was to replicate that formula, especially on Thursday night, and that’s why “The Single Guy” and “Caroline in the City” were given the primo satellite slots. For whatever reason, I can’t remember, Warren Littlefield and I decided that we did not want to know the testing data when we were in pilot season in May 1995. We violated our own policy when it came to “Caroline in the City.” We were convinced that this was going to be our highest-testing pilot, and the Saturday before scheduling meetings, we begged Eric Cardinal, our head of research, to share the results. We were relieved to discover that we were right.
Over on Tuesday we went 50/50. “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which initially aired at 9:30 after “Frasier,” didn’t cut it. I think it was too serious and too adult for the comedies that our audience was looking for. On the other hand, “NewsRadio” hit that absurdist sweet spot and would become an important player for us. I remember going to the table read for the pilot. It was pretty funny, but there was a feeling that we could punch up the comedy if we replaced the handyman at the radio station with someone funnier. So, Joe Rogan replaced a guy named Ray Romano, and the rest is history. The butterfly effect in action.
I the spring of 1996 we added two comedies to the schedule for a tryout. “Boston Common” replaced “The Single Guy” for a short run and was renewed for the 1996-97 season. On Tuesday, we added “3rd Rock from the Sun” to Tuesday at 8:30. We “stole” “3rd Rock” from ABC after they passed on it. To be honest I was not a fan, but the Masked Daughter loved it when I brought it home for the family to screen.
It opened to some lofty ratings, and my 10-year-old would taunt me about how she knew more about hits than I did. We flipped “3rd Rock” into the leadoff spot on Tuesday to test its strength as a lead-in show. It did not disappoint. This enabled us to once again move “Wings” as we were about to expand our comedy presence for the ’96-’97 season.
We were having fun and ended the 1995-96 season as the No. 1 network in adults 18-49. We were commitment-free and had built a strong framework for success. Next time I’ll talk a bit more about movies and “Dateline” — and how I received a Jeer from TV Guide.
To be continued.