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 my first post on the history and strategy of Must-See TV, this was the second paragraph:
“I thought it would be fun to spend a few days [well, it turned out to be all summer] and take you behind the scenes of the scheduling decisions which resulted in Must-See TV. At the end of the day it’s all about the shows, but back then, where those shows were positioned on the schedule still mattered. Also, most of the series that made up MSTV were not produced by the network studio (big difference from how things are today), so issues such as time period commitments played a big role in decisions. As you will see, the biggest gamble of moving ‘Frasier’ and ‘Wings’ over to Tuesday night to establish a second ‘front’ was done because we found ourselves surprisingly commitment-free. Success changed that.”
The 1997-98 season was probably peak MSTV. Although we were scarred and tensions were high within the organization as a result of the whole process of cancelling the Monday movie, we still had the horses of “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Mad About You” and “ER.” We had a comedy-rich schedule with players such as “Just Shoot Me,” “NewsRadio,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Caroline in the City.” “Law & Order” and “Homicide” were dependable performers, we had four “Datelines” and Fridays and Saturdays that made sense. It was a stew of sales-friendly programming where our successful shows were supporting the relatively weaker product. But we had a tension within the organization … and we had “Veronica’s Closet.”
We didn’t own most of our programming, and we were probably most dependent on Warner Bros., which produced “Friends” and “ER” as well as “Suddenly Susan.” Paramount, from which came “Wings” and “Cheers,” continued to own one of our biggest weapons in “Frasier.” Although we were beginning to produce and own some of our programming, our philosophy was still to put the best schedule together regardless of ownership. In case of a tie, the nod might go to our own studio, but we were far from where things are today.
When you don’t own your own programming (and even when you do), there comes a point where you need to renegotiate the license fee that you pay for the right to air two or three runs of an episode. Back then repeats, especially for comedies, still generated ratings, so over two runs you could be profitable with an episode for most shows. The studio is willing to operate at a loss for a show hoping that the big payoff comes when the show goes into syndication.
“Seinfeld” (Castle Rock/Sony), “Friends” (WB) and “Frasier” (Paramount) have all been extremely profitable for their studios and creators. NBC never saw a penny beyond advertising. Plus, oftentimes late in the run of a successful show, the network may pay full cost of production per episode. That’s why ownership has become more important.
Something that enters into negotiations when it’s license fee renewal time is offering to pick up another show from the studio and/or creators of your hit show. “Veronica’s Closet” was a Warner Brothers comedy created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the creative forces behind “Friends.” It starred Kirstie Alley as a businesswoman whose personal life was not in the best of shape.
Looking back at it, if we tried to put this on today, we would have been rightfully skewered. Putting that aside, it was yet another female-led workplace comedy — at a time when NBC had several on the air already — but to appease our creators and WB, not only did we order the series, but we also committed to put it behind “Seinfeld,” where it stayed for the entire season. I don’t remember if there was a two-year commitment to the time period, but “Veronica’s Closet” remained there for a second season.
I remember going to the table read for the “VC” pilot. I arrived late, and although there was a seat for me in the front, I always preferred to sit in the back of the room because people were always looking at my reactions (like it mattered what I thought). This was before I wore a mask. Anyway, when I got to the room, I realized that I had left my glasses in my car (I was nearsighted back then), so I spent the table read squinting and trying to figure out who was in the cast. When I got back to the office my boss Warren Littlefield called to tell me that Peter Roth (head of WB TV) and the producers were upset because I was making faces like I thought it was a terrible show (it was). I explained what happened. Warren of course believed me, but he asked that I call Peter Roth and make nice.
“Veronica’s Closet” would be the first of several time period commitments, but we had a bigger issue on the horizon. Festivus 1997, I got the call from Warren Littlefield that I was dreading. “Well, we’re gonna have a big May sweep,” he said. That was code for “Seinfeld” would not be returning.