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.
As Must-See TV was exploding into a cultural phenomenon in the ’90s, and as we were generating network profits that will never be seen again, I gave my boss Warren Littlefield a copy of David Halberstam’s book “The Breaks of the Game.”
Halberstam followed the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers, a team that had won the NBA Championship two years earlier and a one he saw as building a long-term dynasty. Halberstam’s intent was to write about the formation of that dynasty. Instead, he ended up writing a book about how difficult it was to sustain success and the factors that work to undermine long-term dominance. I told Warren to read it because, as successful as we were, this was probably our fate.
If there was a turning point for us — that moment when we became the Portland Trail Blazers — it was when we cancelled our Monday movie night. We entered the 1997-’98 season with 18 comedies on our schedule. I have often been told that it was an act of insanity, although I point out that when I came into the scheduling job in the ’91-’92 season, there were 18 comedies on the NBC schedule. We had a clear strategy for taking advantage of “Dateline,” a high degree of repeatability with comedies and an effort to prepare for the ending of “Seinfeld.” This all resulted in a very profitable schedule. The issue wasn’t strategic; it was organizational. There were too many type-A personalities, myself included.
The scheduling meeting in May 1997 was the turning point because of the internal damage it did to the organization. Although Warren and I told senior management that we needed to table the movie discussion until October, the decision was made to have the conversation in May. The problem was that our movie group had already ordered original movies for the ’97- ’98 season, so cancelling the Monday movie would have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in product with no room for it on the schedule. Real lines were drawn within the organization, and I left the last meeting being told in no uncertain terms that the movie would remain on Monday night. I was also convinced that when we came back from the upfront in New York City, I was going to be fired.
CEO Bob Wright stepped in at the last minute and made the decision to go down to one movie night. We had done the homework, and Bob saw the upside to the bottom line. The irony was that over the next few seasons, the other networks would also begin to reduce and eventually eliminate their movie nights. Unfortunately for us, the internal damage had been done, and the scars remained for quite a while.
Because we were able to test out and expose several comedies to a large audience through putting them behind “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” we were able to put together a female-skewing block of comedies on Monday with “Suddenly Susan,” “Fired Up,” “Caroline in the City” and “The Naked Truth.” We were able to establish “Dateline” as the only newsmagazine in the Monday 10 p.m. time period. I worked closely with Neil Shapiro the EP of “Dateline” to tailor the stories to our comedy block. The Monday gamble paid off, and we did not touch this night for the entire season.
I really believe that our Tuesday comedy block of “Mad About You,” “NewsRadio,” “Frasier” and “Just Shoot Me” was a more solid group of comedies than the Thursday MSTV mothership. Over on Thursday we used the leadout timeslots to launch new product. At 8:30 was a rather lame comedy, “Union Square.” It was another “Friends” wannabe and sort of similar in format to CBS’ current “Superior Donuts.” “Union Square” didn’t cut it, and we needed to move “Just Shoot Me” to 8:30 and try out a few new comedies on Tuesday, including “Lateline,” another newsroom comedy starring now-Sen. Al Franken.
Remember, in the beginning of this post I talked about how difficult it is to maintain a dynasty? Also remember way back at the start of the MSTV story I told you about time period commitments? Well, winter was coming to the Must-See TV schedule. At 9:30, following “Seinfeld,” we aired a comedy from Warner Bros. and the creators of “Friends” — “Veronica’s Closet.”
The time period commitment was creeping back on to the schedule. Gulp!