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.
In addition to made-for-TV movies and miniseries, the fun part of scheduling movies was buying and programming theatricals. Here are some stories I originally told on my blog, Revenge of the Masked Scheduler.
“Jurassic Park”/”Schindler’s List”: While at NBC I worked closely with John (the Godfather) Agoglia to acquire theatricals. The deal that I will always remember was for “Jurassic Park.” We desperately wanted to get it, knowing that it would be a huge weapon in a sweep (it was). We were willing to overpay, as were the other networks. What sealed the deal for us was that we agreed to include “Schindler’s List” in the buy with Universal. We were also willing to accept Steven Spielberg’s conditions as to how the movie could air on broadcast television. “Jurassic Park” was a big success for us in terms of ratings and profits, but we were not sure what to do with “Schindler’s List.”
We took a gamble and aired it in a February sweep. We conformed to all the stipulations, and our sales peeps went out looking for a single sponsor for the movie. Of course, we went to our parent company, GE, who passed. Then Ford stepped up. They were so supportive that they did not take advantage of the opportunity to insert a commercial during the intermission. We were all nervous as to whether the movie would get a rating, but we were proud to have acquired the movie and to have aired it in a respectful way.
We woke up on Monday morning to surprisingly large ratings. I called up my good friend in sales, Mike Mandelker, to thank him for all that he had done to make the showing a success. He was in a foul mood because he had just gotten off the phone with Bob Wright, the head of NBC. Rather than congratulating Mike, he wanted to know why we hadn’t approached GE about sponsoring the now high-rated movie.
Being involved in airing “Schindler’s List” on a broadcast network is still one of the most satisfying moments of my career, and it also reinforced one of the golden rules of television: No good deed goes unpunished.
“Kindergarten Cop”: Early in my scheduling career at NBC, we bought two movie packages from Universal, where all the films bypassed cable and went directly to the network. Both packages featured a few “blockbusters,” and then we needed to cherry-pick a bunch of movies to round out the buy. The fun was finding the gems among the rest of the litter.
One package included “Kindergarten Cop,” and part of my job was to decide how many times I would air it. We would then spread the cost of the movie over the runs. I think I said that I could run “KCOP” six or seven times. It was another home run in a sweep, and I ran the sprockets off of it. I started getting angry calls from affiliate GMs who begged me not to run it again, but I ignored them and starting making bets with some of them as to what the rating would be for the sixth or seventh run. I made a lot of money on that movie.
“Tremors”: This one was a gem among the runts in the Universal package, and “Tremors” wound up as one of the top 5 movies of the season in 18-49s. No one believed the ratings the morning after it aired, but those were the days when counterprogramming really mattered. I put it against two very female-skewing movies.
“Fried Green Tomatoes”: Another hidden gem, which I aired in a May sweep. This movie was a textbook example of how research can help in scheduling the network. We did concept tests on all our movies (including theatricals), and “FGT” had an amazingly high interest and intent-to-view score. We also did competitive research putting “FGT” against potential movies on the other two nets, and it did surprisingly well. I took a gamble and put it in a sweep. I got one of my “Don’t come in to the office tomorrow if this doesn’t work” speeches from Don Ohlmeyer, but there was just too much positive research on this movie.
“Fried Green Tomatoes” popped, and we repeated it against the American Music Awards on a Monday night, and I think we beat them. I sent a plate of fried green tomatoes to my counterpart in scheduling at ABC to rub it in. I WAS a real d**k back then (some would say I still am). Speaking of being a d**k …
“Backdraft” was another movie that was part of the Universal package and helped us big time in a sweep. I believe we had three runs of the movie, and I was down to my final run. Here’s how I used it: One day Lindy DeKoven, our head of movies and miniseries, called me to say FOX had just scheduled an off-night episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210” right up against the world premiere of a Monday made-for-TV movie which starred “90210” star Tiffani Theissen.
Lindy told me the star and the producers were ballistic and I had to do something. I explained there really wasn’t much I could do, but to appease her I called Doug Binzak, who was doing the scheduling at FOX at the time. I explained the situation and asked him why he wanted to offend a star on his network. Doug said there was nothing that he could do about it. I told him that I would need to retaliate because I had a crazed executive on my hands.
That summer FOX premiered an original scripted series about firefighters. I put my final run of “Backdraft” up against it and killed their series. Doug called and asked if we were even.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: The way we generally figured out a license fee for a theatrical was by its box office gross. Back then, a network would generally pay 15 percent of box office for X number of runs. Sometimes there would be a cap. I was out our local art theater and I saw a trailer for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” This was when I was at FOX, and we were in the process of buying a movie from Sony. They gave us a list of features and asked us to buy one more movie.
I told our head of business affairs that I had seen a trailer for “Crouching Tiger” (it had not come out yet) and it might be worth a shot. I felt it was a sleeper. We threw it into the package. The movie came out and wound up grossing over $120 million. We suddenly had a movie with an outrageous license fee. We were screwed and only aired it once.
“The Fugitive”: At some point the networks started pre-buying movies, i.e. making deals for a movie even before we saw the box office. The first movie we pre-bought at NBC was “The Fugitive.” After we made the deal, we started to panic. We had paid a large license fee in order to take it off the market. We went out on our own dime and bought the rights to air the final three episodes of the television series. Fortunately, “The Fugitive” opened and we gave Warner Bros. all this free publicity.
Pre-buying is a game of chicken between the movie studio and the network. We wanted to pre-buy the 1998 “Godzilla” from Sony and made a generous offer. Sony turned it down and said that they were happy to wait until the movie opened. Well, “Godzilla” bombed. Suddenly Sony claimed that they had accepted our offer. We held them up for more runs for the same price and we demanded additional runs of “A Few Good Men” and “Men in Black 2” (two movies that we had bought in an earlier package).
“Richie Rich,” “Beethoven,” “Jurassic Park,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”: Our sales department loved when we aired theatricals over Thanksgiving weekend, and I would have fun putting together packages of movies to air Thursday-Sunday. One year I pitched Vince Manze (our promo guy) the idea of doing promos for the Thanksgiving movies where the children of NBC employees took over the network and demanded that we air these four movies. Vince liked the idea, and we made it into a big party, inviting our co-workers to bring their kids to the Burbank lot for the shoot. My daughter and son were in the promo (my daughter actually had a speaking part).
One problem: We had just renovated the executive conference room, and we pretty much destroyed it during the shoot. It took the whole weekend to get it looking like new again, and I thought for sure I was going to get fired.
As NBC was entering the 1996-97 season we were at the top of our game. Must-See TV was a cultural phenomenon and we had built a schedule that could continue to crank out the hits. Little did we know that there were dark clouds on the horizon.
Winter was coming to MSTV.