Thursday, September 17, 2015

SOME DAYS YOU'RE THE WINDSHIELD....SOME DAYS YOU'RE THE BUG

Here's another greatest hit form the original Blog. this Monday is the start of the new television season. I share with you all some of my most memorable mornings waking up to ratings. Lot of people in the business say overnight ratings don't matter. Trust me they do. Enjoy and good luck to all next week.

SOME DAYS YOU'RE THE WINDSHIELD....SOME DAYS YOU'RE THE BUG
In a little more than two weeks network executives will be waking up to some pretty scary ratings. Premiere week is coming bitches....and this year we really have an old school premiere week. Virtually everything on the four major broadcast networks will premiere between September 20-26. Around 5:30 AM out here on the west coast the metered market ratings will be processed and I'll be up. It's going to be a long week. When I started scheduling in 1991 I would not look at the ratings until I got to the office. I did not want to hear bad news while driving to Burbank.....and there was a lot of bad news back then. I would get to my desk, print out the ratings and look at them as if I were playing five card stud. There are not many businesses where your consumers give you a report card every morning, 365 days a year. I just calculated that I have been waking up to ratings for almost 11,000 mornings. It's still pretty exciting to see how America responds to the product that we send out but I'm far more jaded now and can put it all in perspective....I don't get too excited and don't let the numbers get me down. Don Ohlmeyer would say "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug"....pretty much sums it up. As premiere week approaches I thought I would share my memories of 10 of the 11,000 mornings. They were special to me because they were game changers, pleasant or unpleasant surprises, or moments which reminded me of the unique opportunity that some of us have to influence the culture and bring millions of people together for a shared experience....there will be fewer of them moving forward and, as a culture we will suffer but that's another story for another day. So here are ten mornings that I will never forget
                                                                                                               
1. SIMPSONS ROASTING ON AN OPEN FIRE December 18, 1989 I'm in audience research at NBC and FOX was still that irritating gnat to the three big networks. My bosses refused to include FOX in the ratings reports and when I became VP of Audience Research my first act was to include FOX in all analyses. I still remember being stunned by the ratings for The Simpsons Holiday special. They were huge. We knew FOX had a weapon and that spring FOX announced that The Simpsons was moving to Thursday to take on The Cosby Show.

2. The morning of October 7th the industry woke up to a big surprise. CBS had gone all in that fall on two sure fire hits: THE FUGITIVE starring Tim Daley and THE BETTE MIDLER SHOW starring well....and then there was this forensic procedural that seemed like an afterthought. A true WTF moment.    

3. ER (WEEK 2) We premiered ER on a Monday night. Given that it was a two-hour pilot we did not want to preempt Seinfeld's Thursday night premiere so we previewed the show in our Monday Night Movie time slot. We were encouraged by the ratings but we knew that ER was going up against the highly touted David E. Kelly medical drama Chicago Hope. Early on CBS had announced that CH was going into the Thursday 10pm time period and many questioned our wisdom in going head-to-head with the Kelly show. We had seen them both and we knew we had the goods. I don't remember the ratings for the first Thursday head-to-head match up (I believe they were pretty close) but I will never forget coming into Burbank and doing my "poker" reveal of the ratings and flipping out when I got to ER v. CH....it was a second round knockout... we shot up in week two to some ridiculous rating while CH sagged. Another game changing moment. Ironically CBS moved Chicago Hope to 10pm on Monday and guess what was waiting for it there on its first night?.....the repeat of the ER pilot....I swear to the scheduling Gods it was not intentional. 
                                                                                                                       
4. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES/LOST It was one thing to wake up to stellar numbers for LOST on September 22, 2004 but less than two weeks later we are greeted with the DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES premiere ratings (see Don Ohlmeyer's mantra)...ABC had finally recovered from executive turmoil and the Millionaire disaster and would now be a player...ugh. 

5. PROVIDENCE I've talked about Providence before on this blog. I remember getting calls from my pals John Miller and Vince Manze on the Saturday morning after seeing the shockingly strong ratings for the premiere. This show had many detractors at the Peacock and I remember telling John and Vince "Let the rewriting of history begin"..a very common occurrence in the industry.
                                                                                                                        
6. THOSE SHE LEFT BEHIND We were at an NBC management meeting (either San Diego or Miami don't remember) and we woke up to these ridiculously large ratings for a little made-for-tv movie starring Gary Cole as a father faced with raising his daughter after the death of his wife. Not only did it set the tone for the meeting but Michael O'Hara, who wrote the movie, was working for NBC in Press and Publicity and he was at the meeting. Needless to say he immediately quit his job and started writing made-fors and minis including SWITCHED AT BIRTH. He also developed a great series of low cost made-fors under the umbrella MOMENT OF TRUTH. I got to know Michael while I was at NBC and always appreciated his understanding that it's ok to be manipulative and go for the heart. 

7. MAD ABOUT YOU MOVES TO SATURDAY NIGHT When we moved Seinfeld over to Thursday night in January of 1993 we needed to do something with Mad About You which was ratings challenged on Wednesday. We all loved the show so I figured lets move it over to Saturday night behind a fading Empty Nest. We pulled Nurses off the schedule to make room for Mad and we all figured it would go there to die. Just the opposite happened. I remember listening to the ratings on the Sunday morning after the move and doing a spit take when I heard the Mad number. We had actually saved the show and it served us well for years to come. Sometimes you succeed without trying.  
                                                                                                                      
8. NIGHT OF A THOUSAND LAUGHS One morning in early 1989 I get a call from Brandon Tartikoff and Lee Curlin (Brandon's scheduler) both expressing concern about a Monday night in the February sweep. ABC was going to premiere the first in a series of Columbo movies (a franchise that had started at NBC) and Brandon thought it was going to be huge. He had an idea. What if we put 6 of our hit comedies together on the night and called it NIGHT OF A THOUSAND LAUGHS. Lee and Brandon wanted to know which comedies I would chose and the order I would put them in. It was the first prime time scheduling decision of my career. I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember exactly the shows or the order but I believe it was COSBY/ALF/CHEERS/NIGHT COURT/GOLDEN GIRLS/EMPTY NEST but I could be wrong. Although it was a memorable moment for me on a personal level, here's why I will never forget looking at the ratings on February 7th. You see Brandon was concerned about the night but for the wrong reason. CBS premiered a little mini series called Lonesome Dove on Sunday night to gigantic ratings. Not only did we have to go against Columbo but we also faced one of the biggest mini-series of all time. What was amazing was that all three networks rocked the ratings and the collective three network household share was above 90% of the television audience. We were in the early stages of the cable era and network shares were beginning to erode. I still remember looking at the ratings and thinking I'll never see numbers like this again (never have). It was also a reminder that this is a business of showmanship (lacking today) and that when the networks compete head-to-head and don't try to finesse their scheduling good things happen.

9. THE OC In my early years at FOX post-season baseball wrecked havoc with our fall schedule. We would pretty much give up the month of October to sports which made it difficult to get started in the fall. We tried everything to schedule around it with little success. One year we decided to make some pickups based on rough cuts or presentations, put them into production early and get them on in early August so that they would hopefully be established before the baseball preemptions. We looked at several pilots and chose The OC and Wonderfalls for the experiment. Unfortunately Wonderfalls was not ready so we put all our chips on The OC and promoted it as "The best Fall series begins this August". The OC premiered August 5th and I'm in Kauai with my family. I get up around 3am to check the ratings and quietly sneak out of my room to call Gail Berman. The numbers were ok but not great. NBC had put a Fear Factor against the premiere to blunt the ratings. Those knuckleheads did us a favor.  NBC took their foot off the pedal and, the next week, the ratings for The OC popped up. But that's not why I remember the morning. My morning telephone pal is Mike Darnell our head of unscripted programs. We are often on the phone by 5:30 in the morning talking about the prior night's numbers. I kept reminding Mike that I was going to be in Hawaii when The OC premiered and to PLEASE remember the time difference. Well I quietly get back to my room and my phone blasts and wakes up my entire family. It was Mike calling to discuss the ratings. You can't say we're not all committed to our jobs.   

 So here's the morning that I will never forget because it was the ultimate bug moment:


10. JOE MILLIONAIRE 2/SKIN In January 2002 we hit the mother-load with Joe Millionaire. American Idol was in its first in-season run and the two shows powered us to the first sweeps win in FOX's history. When we agreed to do JM Mike Darnell and I tried to convince Sandy Grushow to shoot a second one before the first iteration would air. We figured it was the only way for the second Joe Millionaire to feel "authentic" and not "fake"....all relative words in the world of reality. Well we didn't convince Sandy, and Mike was certain that we could not do it again. That didn't prevent Sandy from announcing that we were doing another Joe Millionaire in the Fall of 2002...we wound up shooting it in Europe. Meanwhile, in May of 2002 we screened a pilot about the adult entertainment industry called SKIN. It was really good and tested quite well in spite of the subject matter. We picked it up and paired it with Joe Millionaire 2 on Monday nights. We thought we were going to kick major ass. Fast forward to Tuesday morning October 21....the morning after we premiered our Monday schedule. Now remember I never look at ratings until I get to the office. At around 6 in the morning I get an e-mail from Gail Berman. These three words are burned into my brain: "This is unbelievable.".  My assumption was that we hit it out of the ballpark and did better than we anticipated. So I called in for the ratings. My response to Gail: "Oh that kind of unbelievable". We had a disaster our hands. Oh and when I got to the office my pants caught on fire....don't ask.                                                                            
Well in a few weeks there will be some memorable mornings for executives at all the networks. There will be some pleasant surprises and probably some major disappointments. The only advise I have after 20 years of scheduling is play it in the middle, and don't put a battery in the same pants pocket where you put your change.

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