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.

The 1996-97 season was a year where we were trying to build as many comedy assets as we could. There were two primary drivers. First, we knew that “Seinfeld” was, if not on the decline ratings-wise, a show that was aging and was being run by rather ephemeral people. We figured we should get ready for the moment when Jerry would tell Warren Littlefield that it was time to move on.

The second driver was my growing sense that it was time to cut back on two movie nights and replace one of them with two comedies and “Dateline.” We would need more comedy anchors to do that.

I had been thinking for a while about replacing a movie night. This all coincided with the implementation of Six Sigma thinking at GE, our parent company. I’m not going to be so bold as to say that I took Six Sigma principles, which were simply a data-driven approach to solving problems, as my guiding light here, but it turned out that’s what I was doing.

As I said earlier in this saga, movies served the purpose of covering hours that series could not handle successfully. I started to realize that it was no longer a cost-efficient way to handle failure on the schedule. Newsmagazines could now do that for us in a far more cost-efficient manner, and our focus on comedies (with half in protected time periods) was far more attractive to advertisers. During the 1995-96 season, I asked my colleagues in other divisions to quietly form a task force to look at eliminating a movie night. I made my bosses aware of the project.

As an experiment, I put series on a Sunday night during the season. It was a four-comedy block with an original “Law & Order” at 10 p.m. I’m pretty sure two of the comedies were original, including a “Frasier” episode. The demo ratings for the experiment were slightly higher than the Sunday movie average, but the concentration of 18-49 viewers was significantly better.

As the ’95-’96 season was coming to a close, we showed the results of our analysis to Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield. We proved that we could make a significant improvement to the bottom line by eliminating the Monday movie and replacing it with two comedies and a “Dateline.” One thing, though: For the move to work, we needed to make the decision a season early so our movie group would not go out and order product that would not be needed for the following season. That meant we had to inform our head of movies and minis that we were making the move so as to limit movie orders for the ’97-’98 season. Those pitches would start in October 1996.

Without going into all the details, I was told not to inform the movie group, so as far as I was concerned we would have two movie nights in ’97-’98. That didn’t stop us from looking for more comedies to at least service the 16 slots already on the schedule.

“Suddenly Susan” was put behind “Seinfeld” in fall 1996 and was the first of what would be several female-skewing comedies tried out that season. “Susan” replaced “Caroline in the City,” which, after one season, was moved to Tuesday behind “Frasier.”

We wanted to get as many at-bats in to find more hits, so in mid-season we took “SS” off for six weeks to make room for the ABC castoff “The Naked Truth,” as well as another female appeal comedy, “Fired Up.” Both occupied the Thursday 9:30 slot. “Suddenly Susan” came back at 8:30, hammocked between “Friends” and “Seinfeld.”

“Susan” was a Warner Bros. comedy, and their TV head at the time, Tony Jonas, was quite upset as to how we were treating the show. I reassured Tony that Susan would come back at the same ratings level in spite of the pre-emptions. He was certain I was wrong. We made a bet, and fortunately I was right. As a result, I have autographed scripts of both “Friends” and “ER.” I was pretty confident we had a winning structure here.

Next, “The Pretender” and “Just Shoot Me.” The ones that almost got away.

Posted by:The Masked Scheduler

The Masked Scheduler is a former broadcast network executive. Hailing from parts unknown, he now comments on the TV business for TV by the Numbers.

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