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.
With movie nights on Sunday and Monday, it was ideal for NBC to feature miniseries during sweeps periods. We would generally air one per sweep, and unlike the more conventional made-for-TV movie, miniseries events tried to reach the broadest audience, including men.
There were three broad categories of miniseries that increased the chances of success, and since they were expensive to produce, we gravitated toward these three buckets.
Probably the most successful were the big historical events. I would call them the “Cliff Notes” miniseries since it was a way to “learn” history in an entertaining way. Tasty spinach, so to speak. Biblical miniseries were also included here. A related group was the biographical miniseries. We did several based on the lives of musicians such as The Judds (“Naomi & Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge”) and “The Temptations.” I scheduled the Judds mini against a Stephen King miniseries on ABC, and we more than held our own.
I fondly remember “The Temptations” because it led out of a reality show that I developed along with my friend Bruce Nash. Mike Darnell was having success with these exposés about magicians’ secrets, so I pitched Bruce the idea of doing the same thing for professional wrestling. Back in the mid-’90s there was still the “kayfabe” illusion that wrestling was not fixed. We shot it at the Olympic Auditorium in L.A. and I met Harley Race, one of the all-time greats. It didn’t do all that well, but it was a memory for me.
The next bucket was the true crime minis or the subgenre of a story based on a real event, like the successful “Switched at Birth” (not to be confused with the current Freeform show). Affiliates loved this form because it was easy to tie into their local news, and the movies were pre-sold.
The genre that I think we enjoyed the most was the sci-fi/fantasy mini-series. Our marketing gang, under the guidance of Vince Manze and John Miller, would crank out theatrical-level promos for these events. Since Lindy DeKoven and I would plan these minis out far in advance, we generally had the movie in house in plenty of time to come up with a marketing plan.
Every once in a while, we would catch a break. We did a miniseries based on “Gulliver’s Travels” starring Ted Danson. As part of the campaign we shrink-wrapped busses in major cities with artwork for “Gulliver’s.” About a week before the movie was to air we were at a 2:30 meeting in Don Ohlmeyer’s office. Don had his TVs on, and suddenly there was a hostage situation on a bus in downtown L.A., and for about an hour we watched the shrink-wrapped artwork for “Gulliver’s Travels” on all the stations in Los Angeles. Fortunately, it all ended well.
My most memorable miniseries story involved “The Beast,” based on Peter Benchley’s novel. This was the centerpiece of our May 1996 sweep. We started the movie on Mother’s Day. A good scheduling rule back then was, after a day with the family, guys wanted to kick back with something for them, and what would be better than a yarn about a giant octopus?
Back in 1996 NBC had the network rights to the NBA, and we aired a first-round playoff game in late afternoon on the Sunday “The Beast” was going to premiere. I was at a birthday party for a friend of my son. We were in the Santa Monica Mountains with limited cell service, and this was before smartphones. After several attempts, I finally reached Lindy to wish her good luck and innocently asked her what the score of the NBA game was. She told me, and then I asked what period they were in. I figured out that the game would not be over by 8 p.m. on the East Coast.
I grabbed my son, who was not happy about leaving early, and drove home to hunt down our head of operations, John DeWald. He agreed that we were going long, and we had to decide whether to slide the schedule or join the 8 p.m. show in progress. Joining the 8 p.m. show (“Mad About You”) in progress could cost us advertising money if we could not get all the commercials in. Save the money or start “The Beast” on time? I tried everyone — Warren Littlefield, Don Ohlmeyer and John Miller — to consult, and none were reachable. It was Mother’s Day pre-smartphones but the scheduler was on call 24/7.
I was watching the game and decided it would be over around 10 minutes after the hour and Sports was informed to get off ASAP. I told John to slide the schedule. I would take responsibility. I got off the phone with John and panicked. When viewers tune in at 9 o’clock for “The Beast” and see an episode of “NewsRadio” (our 8:30 comedy), will they tune out?
I called John back and told him to run a crawl at the bottom of “NewsRadio” that said “Don’t touch that dial, THE BEAST IS COMING THE BEAST IS COMING” and make “The Beast” in large green letters. I told John to run it every minute until the movie came on (which was around 9:10). I had the NBC East Coast feed at home, and there is nothing more surreal than giving that order and within a minute seeing a crawl across the screen.
“The Beast” was a huge success. Must-See TV was at the pinnacle of success. We had nine of the top 10 shows for the week, with “The Beast” at No. 2 behind only ER. I put the cover of the Wednesday, May 1 Hollywood Reporter with the network rankings for the week on my @maskedscheduler Twitter feed.
The next morning, I came to work and Don Ohlmeyer called me up to his office. He thanked me for handling the situation — then told me I had broken the law and that crawls were only to be used for news bulletins or emergencies. He also told me that if that ever happened again to do the same thing.
The cherry on the top of all this was TV Guide gave us a jeer for the shameless promotion of “The Beast” and for the crawl. We took it as a badge of honor.
The third part of our movie strategy was the strategic use of theatricals. More about that next time.