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 1998-99 season was the first in a long while without “Seinfeld” on our schedule. When I arrived in Burbank in 1991, the first scheduling move that I ever made was to flip “Seinfeld” and “Night Court,” making “Seinfeld” the 9 p.m. show on Wednesday night. I was head of scheduling for the final year or so of “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers,” but “Seinfeld” defined my tenure at the Peacock.
It was the beginning of the post-“Seinfeld” era, but it was also the end of the Don Ohlmeyer/Warren Littlefield era of leadership. The dysfunction within the organizational ranks continued. I remember a phone call that NBC chairman Bob Wright put together with a few of us where he pretty much said “STOP IT!” It didn’t stop. Warren left early in the season to be replaced by Scott Sassa. We were told that Don would remain for the season, then Scott would replace him and there would be a new president of entertainment in place for the start of the 1999-2000 season.
We also went into the 1998-99 season with big time period commitments on our comedy nights. “Encore! Encore! at 8:30 on Tuesday, “Jesse” at 8:30 Thursday and “Veronica’s Closet” at 9:30 Thursday were all promised those slots for at least the first 13 episodes. Paramount’s “Frasier” won the war for the 9 o’clock “Seinfeld” slot, and we were committed to keeping it in the time period for two seasons.
“Frasier” will always be a sitcom classic, but it was an older-skewing comedy than “Seinfeld,” so the demographic profile of our Must-See TV Thursday night was altered. Also, Frasier the character returned to Thursday night out of a job and down in the dumps. Several of us screened the initial Thursday episodes, and we were concerned that the show was becoming a downer. The audience quickly responded in kind, and Frasier was back in his Seattle radio job real fast; but some damage had been done.
By the time Scott Sassa arrived, it was clear that we had made a mistake in moving “Frasier” back to Thursday. Scott asked me to rethink the schedule with “Frasier” back on Tuesday and “Friends” moving to 9 p.m. Thursday. That was what Warren and I, and even Don, advocated after Jerry Seinfeld told us he was ending his show — too many cooks.
I told Scott and Don that we could not make these moves because we had committed to leave “Frasier” on Thursday for two seasons. This was in return for a reasonable license fee and possibly getting “Encore! Encore!” as well. Everyone dismissed my warning. I told them to call Business Affairs, which also said that there was no problem making the move. I thought that I was losing my mind.
We made the arrangements to call in the production companies on a Monday and announce all the moves in a big press release. I believe this was early in 1999. Scott and Don were going to meet with the Paramount TV Studio heads first to let them know about the “Frasier” decision. Scott was going to give me the go-ahead to tell our press group to release the changes after that meeting and one with Warner Bros. TV Studio.
The Warner Bros. meeting never happened, because the Paramount people told us in no uncertain terms that “Frasier” could not move for two seasons and they had the paper to prove it. Scott frantically called to tell me the changes would not happen and to call off the dogs.
One of the golden rules of scheduling is to never tell your bosses “I told you so.” At least I knew I wasn’t crazy.
The bright spot on the schedule was “Will & Grace,” which turned out to be everything that we hoped it would be. I think we did the right thing by “protecting” it on Monday to start the season. We gave it tryouts on both Tuesday and Thursday, and wherever we put it, “W&G” delivered. By the start of the 1999-2000 season, it was on Tuesday night in the tentpole 9 p.m. slot. I knew there was opposition to moving it to Tuesday, so I had to actually argue against the move in order to get someone else to place it there. I did that a few times in my scheduling career.
The other pleasant surprise going into what would be my final season at NBC was “Providence,” a quirky family drama about a doctor who returns home to help her family after the death of her mother.
One Sunday morning in early 1998, Warren Littlefield called me to say he was sending over a script for me to read. We had one slot left in our drama development, and there was support for “Fargo,” which was based on the characters in the original movie. Warren was attracted to a pilot script called “Providence” and wanted my opinion. I had also read “Fargo.” I told him in no uncertain terms that I would go for “Providence,” since the script he sent over felt very much like FOX’s “Ally McBeal.”
Warren asked if I would argue for “Providence” in a meeting with Don Ohlmeyer and the development exec whose team wanted “Fargo.” I did, and Don agreed to go forward with “Providence.” I think there was a lot of resentment, and the pilot was not well received in the building.
(Warren, incidentally, is now an executive producer of the version of “Fargo” that airs on FX.)
“Providence” was pushed to midseason, which was the best thing that ever happened to it since I noticed that, unbelievably on Friday night at 8, there was nothing targeted for women 25-54. Back then scheduling still mattered, and although most people in the building were hoping that the show would die, it became a time-period hit.
“Providence” was a perfect show to market over the holidays, and we woke up to shockingly large numbers. John Miller, one of our two top marketing execs, called me the Saturday morning after it premiered. I said to John, “Let the rewriting of history begin.” Of course, all the naysayers were suddenly looking to grab some credit for “Providence’s” success.
Sadly, Warren was not around to celebrate in the success of the show.
Next time, I will tell you about my visit with Kauffman, Bright and Crane, the “Friends” producers.