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.
You can never be totally prepared for the end of one of your dominant shows, but when Warren Littlefield called me on Festivus 1997 to tell me Jerry Seinfeld was not returning for another season, I think we were as prepared as we could be.
The whole point of building an 18-comedy schedule was to give us as many options as possible for regrouping without our most dominant comedy and the No. 1 show on television in 18-49 viewers. We still had “Friends” and “Frasier” and, of course, “ER.” In “Just Shoot Me,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “NewsRadio” we had comedies that we felt were ready to take an anchor position on the schedule. We still had another season of “Mad About You.”
When Warren called me with the “Seinfeld” news I was at home taking a nap. My brain was scheduling 24/7, so I immediately told him what we should do.
“Let’s move ‘Friends’ to the ‘Seinfeld’ slot, move ‘Just Shoot Me’ to the hammock slot between ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ in the new year and slide it to 8 p.m. in the fall. Done!”
Warren agreed. Don Ohlmeyer (who sadly passed this week) called me a while after I heard the news. Rather than discussing what to do, Don said the three of us should ponder it over the holidays and regroup in January.
At this point, only a few people knew of Jerry’s decision. This was in the early days of the internet as a news source. The New York Times had a website, and late in the evening on Christmas Day, Bill Carter, then chief TV writer for the paper, broke the story that Jerry had called it quits. Around 11:30 Christmas night, the Masked Wife and I were hanging around the kitchen counter, preparing for a trip the next day to Palm Springs, when the house phone rang. I just assumed someone had died.
Instead it was Joe Adalian, who was writing for the New York Post at that time. It was 2:30 in the morning back east, and Joe had been awoken by his editor who saw Carter’s NYT post. Joe asked me to confirm, which I told him I could not do without talking to Pat Schultz, our press person. I called Pat first thing the next morning. By then the cat was out of the bag, and there went a restful couple of days in Palm Springs.
By January all the buzz was speculation as to what NBC was going to do when “Seinfeld” left the air in May. Warren, Don and I got together to discuss our options. We told Don of our preference, and he said that he was thinking the same thing. The comedy strategy appeared to be paying off. We agreed to move “Just Shoot Me,” a show that had originally been dismissed, into the 8:30 hammock slot on Thursday. We also agreed to keep any plans to ourselves. “Mad About You” and “Frasier” would be our Tuesday anchors, and “Just Shoot Me” and “Friends” would hold down the 8 and 9 o’clock slots on Thursday. Easy peasy. Yeah, right.
First, the time period commitments were starting to pile up. We already had the “Veronica’s Closet” commitment from Warner Bros. Suddenly another WB commitment from “Friends” creators Kauffman, Bright and Crane appeared. “Jesse” starred Christina Applegate as a single mom living in Buffalo. We committed to the 8:30 Thursday time slot. “VC” was already at 9:30.
Next, we found ourselves in a bidding war for a comedy from Paramount called “Encore! Encore!,” which featured Nathan Lane as a world-famous opera star whose vocal chords are ruined after he eats a bad clam and has a botched surgery. He returns to his family’s vineyard in Napa. Hijinks ensue. That was committed to either 8:30 or 9:30 on Tuesday. You can’t make this s**t up.
So even before we started our scheduling meetings, we were already handcuffed. But it didn’t stop there. We were summoned to New York City to meet with Jack Welch, the head of GE, parent company of NBC. That and more next time.