Even network schedulers can come up with a creative idea every once in a while. Over the course of my career, I would occasionally have the opportunity to pitch an episode story to a showrunner (sometimes through a current executive), and by some miracle that pitch would become an episode.
The first time an idea of mine was incorporated into an episode was on “LA Law.” Toward the end of its run, I pitched the idea of having Arnie Becker falsely accused of murder. They did it!
On two occasions, I pitched “Law & Order” stories to Dick Wolf, which actually became episodes. In Season 4, René Balcer wrote an episode called “Doubles.” Here was my pitch: What if Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were in cahoots? It was transformed from figure skating to tennis, but it was “ripped from today’s headlines.” A few years later I saw René at an NBC function where he told me he thought it was the worst episode of “Law & Order” ever … oh well.
My second chance to pitch Dick Wolf came before Season 7. Blame John Wells for this one. “ER” was one of the biggest shows on television, and each year I would plead with John to give us more than 22 episodes. John would not budge, and I could not figure out how we were going to get from the end of February to May with virtually no originals.
The O.J. Simpson verdict had come down in October 1995. The nation was riveted, and it still resonated in our culture when I called Dick and pitched him an idea. I told him that we needed to give “ER” a break after the February 1997 sweeps period, and I offered him the coveted “Must See TV” Thursday night slot. There was a catch: He needed to deliver a three-part “event” which would be the ultimate ripped-from-the-headlines “L&O.” The gang takes on the “Dream Team” in a murder story with elements of the O.J. trial.
Dick immediately bought in to the idea, but there was on issue. The head of NBC, Don Ohlmeyer, had been a friend of O.J., and my boss Warren Littlefield and I were concerned about how Don might react to something like this. We went up to see him. Don’s back was hurting and he was in the prone position puffing on a Marlboro. I cautiously pitched him the idea. Don was quiet and kept puffing, then said, “Take the rest of the day off, I love it.”
Part 1 of the event, “D-Girl,” aired Thursday at 10 in March. “Law & Order” won an Emmy that season, something that doesn’t happen that often for a show that far along in its journey.
My final episode pitch was to Seth MacFarlane. I was pretty certain that there was never an episode of “Family Guy” where the Griffins became a Nielsen family. As many of you know, Seth loves to sing with a big band and he was performing at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood on a Sunday night. My pal Marcy Ross, who was head of Current Programs at FOX, and her husband, Rob, joined the Masked Wife and me for the evening.
After the first set we went over to say hello to Seth. I had had a few and I told him that I had an idea for an episode. He said he would call me, but I figured that would never happen — after all, this is the biz. The next morning, he called. I pitched him the idea. He loved it, and the episode “All in the Nielsen Family” (also known as “Ratings Guy”) resulted. I even got a shout-out in the episode.
I don’t want you to think that all my ideas were winners. I suggested to Joel Surnow that we do a season of “24” where daylight savings time was part of the storyline. Crickets.
I told Hart Hanson that I believed that the Kardashians, Britney Spears and others were government agents used to distract us from more important things, and he used it in an episode of “Bones.”
So, I had my moments, but mostly I just shut up and scheduled.
On Twitter it’s @maskedscheduler, and the email is firstname.lastname@example.org.