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.

Decision time had finally arrived in May 1998. “Seinfeld” was leaving the schedule. I thought we had a plan that made sense, but we entered the scheduling room with far too many cooks and at some point, the decision shifted from what made the most sense for the schedule to who would give us the better deal.

Since we didn’t own any of our big hit comedies, it was up to Paramount and Warner Bros. to determine whether “Frasier” or “Friends” would take over the coveted 9 p.m. Thursday time period. We had already given away three of the four satellite slots on Tuesday and Thursday, and now we were giving up control of the most valued half-hour on the schedule — the half-hour that defined the network.

One piece of good news was we had developed a comedy that was owned by the network, and it would be on the fall ’98 schedule. It was about a single woman and her gay male friend who shared an apartment in New York. The comedy “Will & Grace” was developed off cycle, i.e., it was shot and screened months before we would traditionally screen pilots for the next season. I think that gave Warren Littlefield and his developers a chance to focus their energies on a single show rather than spread themselves over 10-plus projects, which was generally the case by the time you got to April.

We all liked the “Will & Grace” pilot, but what was interesting was the real driver of the show, the relationship between Jack and Karen, does not exist in the pilot. They meet in the second episode. I happen to have been at that taping, and it was electric. I ran out of the studio and called Warren all excited at what had just taken place on the stage in Studio City.

“Will & Grace” premiered almost exactly 20 years ago, on Sept. 21, 1998. Things were different, and although it was by far our best piece of development, I suggested keeping it out of the spotlight and avoiding the pressure of going to either Tuesday or Thursday night. We parked it on Monday following “Caroline in the City. “W&G” turned out to be everything we could have hoped for, and over the course of its freshman season, it spent time first on Tuesday and then on Thursday before moving to the 9 p.m. Tuesday slot for the 1999-2000 season … my final one at the Peacock.

Now back to the Thursday at 9 decision. We put the timeslot up for bid. There were several of us who were concerned about “Frasier” coming back to Thursday. “Friends” was clearly the younger-skewing show of the two, and there was concern that “Frasier” would age up the night. We waited until the last minute with two alternative schedules. Finally, Paramount won the war, and “Frasier” was returning to Thursday with “Friends” staying put at 8. As part of the “Frasier” deal, we agreed to commit to two seasons of the show in the Thursday timeslot. Remember that. It would come back to bite us in the butt.

I think we went to New York for the upfront with a feeling that Must-See TV was winding down. Sure, we were excited about “Will & Grace,” but I think there was a sense that we may have played out the formulas. Everything was a year older. Our new dramas did not look promising. Also, the scars from the internal divisions of cancelling the Monday movie had never healed and in fact were getting worse.

Reality was setting in. Not just the attrition of the schedule, but another type of reality. Over at FOX, Mike Darnell was putting on reality clip shows like “When Animals Attack” and “When Good Pets Go Bad.” He was putting them right up against our Thursday schedule and getting numbers. Then in August 1999, ABC introduced a game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Given our upscale audience and the disposition of our specials group, we were not prepared for the emergence of this genre. We were entering the unscripted era.

The 1997-98 season was the final one for the original Must-See TV posse. By the end of 1998-99 both Warren Littlefield and Don Ohlmeyer were gone, and I wasn’t that far behind them. This was no longer fun.

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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