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.
Sometimes you just flat out get it wrong. If you’re lucky, you swallow your pride, accept your stupidity and hold on to a show before it’s not too late. That was true of two of our shows that premiered during the 1996-97 season.
I don’t know if I have talked about “The Pretender” on TV by the Numbers, but I’m sure I mentioned it on my blog, Revenge of the Masked Scheduler. Sometime during the 1995-96 season, a script for the show came to us unsolicited. Warren Littlefield passed it around for several of us to read, and we were excited to make a pilot. “The Pretender” was about Jarod, a genius raised with others in The Centre. He could transform himself into anything and he escapes The Centre. While he is being pursued by a member of The Centre, Jarod assumes various identities and helps people. It was a bit “Fugitive” and a bit “Quantum Leap.” The final version wasn’t as dark as the original script, but we were looking forward to seeing it.
We had two development/current teams back then, and before we would begin screenings I would ask each team leader if there was a pilot that they did not wish us to screen because it was a total miss. We were going to test them all but didn’t have to screen them. The leader of the team that developed “The Pretender” suggested we not screen it. I was disappointed but respected the decision.
The morning we were setting the schedule, Eric Cardinal, our head of research, called to let me know that “The Pretender” was one of the highest-testing pilots in NBC history, comparable to “ER.” We quickly retested it to similar results and put it on the Saturday schedule along with two other thrillers, “Dark Skies” and “Profiler.”
“The Pretender” had a successful run — four seasons on NBC, plus two follow-up movies on TNT. I worked with the GE nerds to develop all sorts of models, and one of them cited “The Pretender” as the strongest show on the schedule needing minimal lead-in support. It was a show that could work anywhere.
The other one that almost got away was “Just Shoot Me,” a solid workplace comedy from Steve Levitan, who came from “Frasier” and went on to co-create “Modern Family.” I remember going to the pilot table read and being impressed by the professionalism of the cast. “JSM” didn’t make the fall schedule in 1996 but we ordered six episodes for midseason. They quietly went about making them.
What did make the fall schedule was “Men Behaving Badly,” which followed “NewsRadio” on our new Wednesday night comedy block. “Men” was based on a British comedy, and it was from Carsey/Werner of “Cosby”/”Roseanne” renown. It starred Rob Schneider and was a raunchfest — not a good one. Let’s just say Warren Littlefield and I had different opinions as to whether to put the show on in the fall. I did not win the argument.
“Men” got off to a shaky start and, rather than just killing it, there was an effort to retool it. The showrunner assigned the task was Steve Levitan, who had finished producing his “Just Shoot Me” order. In December, we shut “Men Behaving Badly” down for retooling and needed a show for Wednesday. Compounding all this was ABC’s “Arsenio,” which was Arsenio Hall’s attempt at a sitcom. We all thought it was going to be a hit. “Arsenio” was premiering in March.
We decided to rejigger our fledging Wednesday schedule and move “NewsRadio” to 8, away from “Arsenio,” which ABC had slotted at 9 (it ended up airing at 9:30 after “The Drew Carey Show”). I suggested “Just Shoot Me” as the 9 p.m. sacrificial lamb. The show did not have many fans in the building, and Warren suggested that he and I, along with marketing dudes Vince Manze and John Miller, all watch it over the Christmas holidays.
We got on a call toward the end of December, and I said I thought that four of the six episodes of “JSM” were pretty good. The response from the others was that was four more than they liked. Well, we had no choice, so “Just Shoot Me” was the sacrificial lamb … which not only beat “Arsenio,” but also went on to have a successful, seven-season run on the network. “JSM” played a small role in the decision of what to do when “Seinfeld” went away.
That May I introduced myself to Steve Levitan at our upfronts. As was usually the case, although I sort of liked the show, other execs fingered me as the guy who was keeping the show off the air and hated it. Comes with the territory.
Steve retaliated, and in the second season did an episode called “My Dinner with Woody” where Maya, the female lead, has dinner with a deranged person who thinks he is Woody Allen. My name was used for the character.
We ended the 1996-97 season with a new group of comedy assets. I figured we were putting off the decision on cancelling a movie night since we had ordered a bunch of made-fors for ’97-’98. It turned out that I was wrong, and that led to some unpleasantries from which we never fully recovered.
To be continued …