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 face-off between “Frasier” and “Home Improvement” was the talk of the summer, and the free publicity was amazing. We purposely kept “Frasier” on Thursday night throughout the summer and waited for premiere week to move it head-to-head against “HI.”
It wasn’t quite The Battle of the Bastards, but we were about to go to war with ABC at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, and for the overall claim as the No. 1 network in the 18-49 demographic, which was the currency of the business.
Back in the mid-’90s, the Hollywood Radio and Television Society (HRTS) would kick off the broadcast season with a panel of the network presidents. I still remember when Warren Littlefield was asked about the confrontation, he was humble and said (which was the truth) that we expected “Home Improvement” to win but that we would be competitive. Ted Harbert, then head of ABC Entertainment, was a bit more arrogant about this. He was out of a job within two years.
When I came out to Burbank in 1991, I decided not to look at the ratings until I arrived at the office. This was before ratings hotlines. I would often get a call on the way in to the office from someone in research, and I would beg them not to call and read me the ratings. When I got into the office, I would print up the overnights and look at them as if I were looking at a poker hand. I remember the relief at looking at the “Frasier” overnight ratings. We didn’t win the time period, but it was clear “Frasier” would survive against “Home Improvement” and that “HI” had taken the bigger hit with this move to Tuesday. It looked vulnerable.
The even bigger relief, and pleasant surprise, was what was about to happen on Thursday night — where two medical dramas were going head-to-head at 10 p.m. The “ER” pilot, which I told you all tested through the roof, was two hours, and we had a tough decision to make. Do we pre-empt “Seinfeld” in premiere week and air the pilot from 9-11 p.m., or do we find another timeslot for the premiere? We all agreed that we would be leaving too much money on the table if “Seinfeld” were not part of our Thursday night premiere strategy. Fortunately, we had a simple solution.
At that time, we had a Monday movie night that went up against “Monday Night Football” in the fall. Our movie targeted women 18-54, and we figured that would be the demo for “ER,” so we premiered the pilot on Monday and ran the second episode on Thursday along with our comedy premieres. We were confident that if viewers showed up on Monday, they would come back Thursday for the next episode. They did. We outrated the premiere of “Chicago Hope,” but the shocker was on week two, where “ER” blew “Hope” out of the water and CBS needed to rethink keeping the show on Thursday night.
“ER” quickly established itself as a juggernaut. Next, we had to figure out how and where to repeat the pilot, which leads me to a funny story.
New Year’s Day featured the top college football bowl games (now there are a gazillion bowls). NBC would air the Orange Bowl in prime, and ABC would air the Rose Bowl in the afternoon and the Sugar Bowl in prime. Generally, one of those games was for the national championship. With two networks airing college football, CBS would wisely see that as an opportunity to premiere a midseason series against them. I remember “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” among others, successfully launched against the bowl games.
NBC had lost the rights to the Orange Bowl for the 1995 game. We were sitting around one day thinking about how to program the “ER” repeat. We knew CBS was going to move “Chicago Hope” away from “ER,” and I suggested that given their New Year’s Day strategy, I would not be surprised if they took the opportunity to relaunch it at 10 p.m. on Monday, which was New Year’s Day.
We pre-emptively announced we were repeating the “ER” pilot on New Year’s Day, and we did it sometime in October. We went out with a press release figuring that would give CBS pause. It turned out we were right about where “Chicago Hope” was going, and shockingly, CBS announced it would move there on New Year’s Day. It’s a free country.
Mandy Patinkin, who was starring in “CH” at the time, heard about this and called Don Ohlmeyer’s office demanding to meet with him. Don graciously agreed, and after Mandy vented, Don walked him through the chronology of events and told him that he was in the wrong president’s office and should head back over to CBS. On New Year’s Day, the “ER” repeat once again crushed “Chicago Hope,” which did remain on the CBS schedule for a few more seasons away from the big dog.
Those were the days when scheduling really mattered, and the networks would aggressively go after each other.
Not only were we celebrating the success of “ER,” but also another pleasant surprise was brewing over on Thursday. That’s the next story.