Back in 2002 NBC devoted a significant part of its May sweep to celebrating its 75th anniversary in broadcasting. One of the specials was a look back at 20 years of Must-See TV. It was hosted by Eric McCormack, who played a slightly better-looking version of me. I believe he was standing in front of a scheduling board and going through the evolution of Thursday night and the expansion to Tuesday and beyond.
To be honest, I didn’t watch it. It was too painful, as NBC was in the process of dismantling the night that meant so much to the culture, the financial success of NBC and to me personally.
I thought it would be fun to spend a few days and take you behind the scenes of the scheduling decisions that resulted in Must-See TV. At the end of the day, it’s all about the shows, but back then, where those shows were positioned on the schedule still mattered. Also, most of the series that made up MSTV were not produced by the network-affiliated studio (big difference from how things are today), so issues such as time period commitments played a big role in decisions.
As you will see, the biggest gamble of moving “Frasier” and “Wings” over to Tuesday night to establish a second “front” was done because we found ourselves surprisingly commitment-free. Success changed that.
I came out to Burbank to be head of scheduling in the summer of 1991. We were at the tail end of the wildly successful “Cosby”/”A Different World”/”Cheers”/”Night Court”/”LA Law” era. My first pilot screening season was in 1989 while I was still in audience research. I was in the room for the screening of “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” This show was the seed of the MSTV comedy era. “Seinfeld” did not make the fall schedule, but Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s head of Entertainment, ordered four more episodes.
In 1990 I again came out for the pilot screenings, and Brandon invited me to go to the scheduling board and put up a schedule. This was a life-changing moment for me, and one of the first tiles I moved to the board was “Seinfeld.” I put it behind “Cheers” and moved “Wings,” which had debuted that spring, to Wednesday with “Night Court.” Lee Currlin, who was Brandon’s scheduler, quickly moved “Seinfeld” off the board and returned “Wings” to the Thursday 9:30 slot.
The following year (now I am soon to be head of scheduling), I again put “Seinfeld” behind “Cheers,” and Lee again moved it and put “Wings” back on Thursday. This year at least, “Seinfeld” remained on the fall schedule. I was starting to think something was up. It was. I was about to learn the dirty little secret of time period commitments.
In July 1991, I moved from New York City to Burbank to be Warren Littlefield’s head of scheduling. In addition to my family, I asked if I could bring my desk. It was my prize possession. By the end of December 1992 that desk had thirteen gashes in it, and the first scheduling move of the Must-See TV era was about to happen.
To be continued…
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