As successful as our Thursday night was proving to be, we still had other issues to deal with. We started the 1993-94 season with a Tuesday night comedy block that was pretty much DOA. The one glimmer of hope on the night was “The John Larroquette Show,” about a recovering alcoholic who managed a bus depot. It was a pretty dark comedy and shared a night with “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” and “Getting By,” which continued our Miller-Boyett obsession (at least mine).
We knew that we needed to start from scratch on Tuesday, and we went into pilot season in the spring of 1994 needing to replace our Thursday 10 p.m. drama “LA Law.” “Homicide: Life on the Street” was the heir apparent, but we saw and tested a medical drama — “ER” — that made us quickly reverse that decision. “ER” was one of the highest-testing pilots in our history at NBC. Back then we recruited people to view pilots on their cable system, and then we would call for feedback. The channel was available for anyone on the system to view, and cable operators were calling our research department to tell us they were flooded with callers asking when the next episode of “ER” was going to air.
That winter, CBS announced that they were going to schedule a David E. Kelley medical drama, “Chicago Hope,” in the Thursday 10 p.m. timeslot. “LA Law” was going away, and they were trying to establish turf in the time period with a show from a significant contributor to the success of “LA Law.” Based on the testing and the internal response to “ER,” we went ahead and scheduled our medical drama up against “Chicago Hope.” We felt that we had the perfect quality companion to our block of Must-See comedies.
I personally loved “Homicide” and was hoping to put it in that coveted spot, but it was clear that we had a broader, more inclusive drama in “ER.”
“ER” was from Warner Bros., who also gave us another pilot that spring — “Friends.” There was nothing unique about “Friends.” It was a solid comedy, but it tested as a “high weak.” I remember reading the script and shrugging. Our head of research and my good friend, Eric Cardinal, went to the taping and reported back that it was not promising. Seeing the pilot, I thought it was better than expected but nothing out of the ordinary. Then I got a threatening call from someone on our New York sales team.
As I said, we needed to start over on Tuesday night and, for some reason, our sales department heard that we were going back to reality on the night with “Unsolved Mysteries.” Reality television back then (and even today) was not embraced by sales. They loved comedies. Joan Leahy was a crusty sales veteran. She called me and said that if we came to the upfront with “Unsolved Mysteries” on Tuesday night, she would hunt me down and kill me. I believed her.
Fortunately for me, we had been doing competitive research all season to determine the strength of certain shows in different spots on the schedule. While we were developing a roster of young adult comedies, ABC was prospering with their middle America family brand. “Roseanne” had been anchoring ABC’s Tuesday night comedy block for six seasons. Although the show was still rock solid, we noticed that when we hypothetically put “Frasier” against it, we held our own — and over the course of the season, the gap between the shows was shrinking. I won’t go into the methodology, but we had a lot of confidence in the research.
After screening the pilots, we were about to start scheduling. Joan’s death threat was weighing on me. I went to bed Friday evening wondering how I was going to go to New York and not get killed. During the night I had a revelation. What if we doubled down and started a second night of Must-See TV by moving “Wings” and “Frasier” over to Tuesday and using the 8:30 and 9:30 slots to launch some new comedies? I had faith in “Frasier” and some research against “Roseanne” to back it up, and “Wings” was a dependable show.
This was 1994, so I didn’t have Excel or anything. I drew a scheduling grid, put “Wings” and “Frasier” on Tuesday with “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” on Thursday. Sometime in the early morning, I faxed it to Warren Littlefield and John Miller. It’s important to know we had zero commitments to any outside production company, so we could do whatever we wanted with the schedule. “Wings” and “Frasier” were both Paramount properties.
Early Saturday morning, Warren called me and said, “I love it, but someone is going to have to start our cars for us.” That was his way of saying Paramount would not be happy. So, one way or the other, I was a dead man.
We came to the scheduling room on Monday with the goal of convincing every one of the wisdom of this move. It wasn’t easy.