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 1996-97 season was, for me as a scheduler, pretty much a perfect wave.

The Must-See TV schedule was in place, and we were making hundreds of millions in profit. There was stability in management; several of us had worked together for a number of years. There was trust by Warren Littlefield, Don Ohlmeyer and Bob Wright that there was a core group of executives whose only goal was to keep NBC the No. 1 network in the 18-49 demographic. We had a strategy, we executed it, and we did it with a lot of showmanship by our marketing team, led by John Miller and Vince Manze.

At the center of our strategy was comedy. We started and ended the season with 16 comedies on the schedule. We abandoned Saturday night comedies but had two-hour blocks Tuesday through Thursday. There were two comedies each on Sunday and Monday, so we had a comedy presence on five consecutive nights.

The block of “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Dateline” and “Homicide” was in its third consecutive season on Friday, and we put together a night of edgy new dramas on Saturday in “Dark Skies,” “The Pretender” and “Profiler.”

If you remember, this adventure began with my realization when I started my job as scheduler that time period commitments were preventing us from putting the best schedule on the air. When we moved “Frasier” to Tuesday, we were finally commitment-free, and that started the successful run that we were on entering the 1996-97 season. I felt that we were in a position to get the best comedies because we had so many successful anchors on our schedule.

I told Warren (and I was serious) that when studios and agents drove on to the NBC lot in Burbank, there should be a big sign for them to see with our 8 and 9 p.m. Tuesday/Thursday comedies and a space behind each of them that said “Your show here.” There was really no other network that could make that claim. With seven returning comedies as anchors, that gave us seven at-bats to launch more successes.

Back in 1995-96 we premiered “3rd Rock from the Sun,” which we picked up after ABC passed on it. That same season ABC premiered “The Jeff Foxworthy Show.” Although NBC was a young adult, urban, upscale network, I realized that we were ignoring a large segment of our country. A comedian like Jeff Foxworthy might be what we needed to reach new segments of the audience. ABC premiered the family comedy in the fall to pretty impressive ratings, but they kept jerking it around the schedule. Wherever they put it, “Foxworthy” did just fine.

I would bring “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” up at our 2:30 meetings, mostly to point out how dumb ABC was in how they were treating a show I felt could be a real asset to a network whose sweet spot was middle-America family comedies. Little did I know that Don Ohlmeyer was listening carefully to what I was saying.

In May 1996, after we had finished screening the pilots and the night before we were about to start the scheduling meetings, I received a late-night call from Don.

“We got it,” was all he said.

“Got what?” I responded.

“I got Foxworthy for you.”

There was dead silence on my side. Let’s just say Don made it very clear that this was all on me, and I better figure out what we were going to do with the show. We scheduled it on Monday night with a comedy called “Mr. Rhodes,” about a teacher in a private school. The hour replaced “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “In the House,” which starred LL Cool J. Needless to say, that was quite a jolt to our traditional Monday comedy audience.

We stuck with the shows for the season, but neither made it to a second year. It taught me the lesson that your audience is expecting certain product from you, and you will get slapped back in line when you stray from that.

It was fun to hear that ABC totally freaked when they heard we had stolen another show from them. We did it to them again in ’96-’97 with “The Naked Truth” starring Tea Leoni. That one had a bit more success for NBC, running two seasons.

ABC tried to retaliate by taking “Something So Right,” which started the season as our Tuesday 8:30 comedy. After NBC canceled it, ABC brought it on in the spring of ’98. It did not go well.

As the 1996-97 season progressed, I started to think about one more move that would take the schedule to the next level. That’s next.

Posted by:The Masked Scheduler

The Masked Scheduler is a former broadcast network executive. Hailing from parts unknown, he now comments on the TV business for TV by the Numbers.

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