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.
As my career at NBC was winding down, we were at the beginning of the big leap into reality programming. In the summer of 1999, ABC aired a two-week game show event called “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” that exploded into a ratings behemoth. ABC returned the show during the November sweep, and in January 2000, “Millionaire” was a regular part of the ABC schedule, running several nights a week. ABC went on to win the season in adults 18-49, knocking us out of first place for the moment.
In quick succession, each year brought a new franchise: “Survivor” (2000), “The Amazing Race” (2001), “American Idol” and “The Bachelor” (2002), “The Apprentice” (2004) and “Dancing With the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Hell’s Kitchen” (2005). These franchises are still going strong, with “Idol” returning this spring on ABC.
Before the reality-competition explosion, there were the clip shows. When I arrived in Burbank in the fall of 1991, Must-See TV was yet to exist, and we were desperate for ratings. Jeff Gaspin was an executive in the news division. Jeff and I worked together in New York and became pals. By the time I moved coasts, he was overseeing primetime news programming and showed up in my office one day to pitch me a clip show with hard-edged videos that were not considered acceptable for a network news show. I was intrigued, and we went to Warren Littlefield with the idea of trying it out as a series of specials. We figured coming out of our news division would give it some “legitimacy.”
Starting in February 1992, we aired six “I Witness Video” specials. They were a ratings hit, and we made it a part of our schedule for the 1992-93 season, airing Sunday at 7 in the “family hour.” Back then, that hour was either family programming or news, and since “IWV” came from our news division, we were covered.
We got a lot of pushback from our sales group as well as from the TV critics. Internally I wound up as the program executive — none of our programming execs wanted to cover it, and Warren felt I had the relationship with Jeff and NBC News President Michael Gartner. The show lasted two years, and as we were building a quality roster of shows, there was no need for it to continue. So, before FOX made these clip shows a staple of their programming, there was “I Witness Video.”
Somewhere around 1997, Mike Darnell, FOX’s head of unscripted TV, started airing a series of clip-show specials with titles such as “When Animals Attack” and “When Good Pets Go Bad.” These specials often ran on Thursday nights in sweeps and did some serious damage to the ratings on our most important night. We had created the monster in the early ’90s, and now it was attacking us.
In addition to myself, John Miller and Vince Manze, our top marketing executives, were trying to convince Warren and Don Ohlmeyer that we needed to get into the edgy reality show business. Rick Ludwin, who oversaw specials (think Bob Hope), late night and “Seinfeld,” wanted no part of them. The closest we could come was a series of National Geographic specials. We had a deal with Nat Geo for some high-end specials. John and I were put in charge of them, and we pushed them to bring us their most sensational stuff. For example, there was a watering hole in Africa where various species lived in peace — that is until the hole started drying up. I’ll leave it at that.
We continued to watch as these FOX clip shows hurt our ratings. Early in the 1998-99 season Warren left, the ratings were starting to unravel a bit, our shows were aging and one day we got a call from Bruce Nash asking if he could come in and meet with us. Bruce Nash was the supplier of FOX’s clip shows. John Miller and I took the meeting.
Next: The clip that was too gross for FOX.