Monday, November 2, 2015

AND ON THE NINTH DAY JACK RESTED


This story's gonna start in a weird place...COSTCO...about three years ago...I was doing my usual Sunday run through the store when there was a display for the first six seasons of 24 on DVD. I stopped in my tracks. Couldn't move for a few minutes and actually tears came to my eyes...............I really am blessed...first and foremost always for my family...but I have also had an opportunity over three decades to, in a very small way, help shape, influence, kibitz, whatever culture.

When I came across the 24 display it hit me how fragile these shows are, how one decision along the way can make the difference between a cultural phenomenon and yet another show on the television scrap heap. How rare it really is in this fakakta business for something truly unique and special to come along; and what an enormous responsibility it is for the producers, the studio and the network to nurture and protect these rare gems Yesterday FOX announced that this May, 24 will be ending its 8 year run. As someone who was there from the beginning I thought I would share some moments from my small role in all this.

24 was the last drama ordered to pilot in our 2001 drama development. After I read the pilot script I emailed David Nevins, our top developer at the time, to tell him how excited I was about making this and of course he, along with most of us on the 4th floor at FOX, concurred...but you know....the food chain...it's too serialized, it's about terrorism, will women watch it, what if it bombs and we pull it before the conclusion...all valid questions but it was just too good not to make, so we did.

It was an awesome, high testing pilot with a breakout character brought to life by Kiefer, and we introduced an African American Presidential candidate to America. It was well received in our screenings. We debated the obstacles but it had to get on the schedule and we announced 24 for Tuesday nights at 9 in the Fall of 2001. FOX did not have a very good reputation for sticking with shows back then so Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman were bombarded with questions at the Television Critics tour about our commitment to running all 24 episodes. We knew that we were taking an enormous risk on several levels and we would be skewered if we pulled it. Didn't matter, we were going to roll the dice on this one.

After we announced 24, Warren Littlefield, my good friend and former boss, called to tell me that he had suggested to Joel Surnow (you all know who he is) that Joel call me and start a conversation.  Joel and I talked often that summer and the dialogue continued throughout Joel's connection with the show...including one fateful call after Season 3 which I will get to later. 

Joel was very proud of the pilot and its unique way of story telling. I tried to tell him the obstacles to success for a show like 24 but he was convinced we had a hit on our hands. Then shit happened on September 11. We discussed whether we delay the premiere of the show. We looked at the pilot again and realized that there was one very dramatic scene (a passenger plane explodes in mid-air) that had to be removed. We needed to reevaluate the marketing campaign. We made the corrections and, since the show wasn't premiering until November, we stayed the course.

The events of September 11th gave 24 a whole new meaning and relevance. In addition to figuring out the whole marketing strategy for 24, Sandy Grushow and I had a difference of opinion regarding the scheduling of the premiere. I wanted to premiere it as a two hour "event". The zen of scheduling is "the best lead in to a show is itself" and, having seen the second episode I felt that airing episode two immediately after episode one might convince skeptics that this was more than a gimmick. Also, getting viewers two hours into the story might hook them even better. Sandy wanted to give it a Simpsons lead in. Great flow and compatibility (sarcasm). I lost that debate.

The critics were solidly behind the show but, given the network, were wary of our commitment to keep the show on the air. Also was this really a FOX show? It was smart and adult. Shouldn't 24 be on say NBC with it's upscale, educated audience?

Here was the irony.  Over at NBC a recently installed idiot of a Network President...Jeff Zucker...was plotting to destroy the premiere of 24 with a classic NBC upscale show...FEAR FACTOR...the irony of all this was that while Zucker was in the initial phases of a scorched earth campaign to destroy all that was great about my Alma Mater, Gail Berman was transforming FOX from a network for 30 year old guys who live with their mother and date their hand into a smart alternative network, and 24 was a significant piece in that transition. Zucker waited until the last minute and announced a two hour Fear Factor would go against the premiere of 24. Jeff did us a big favor. Like most of his schemes (uh, Leno?) they blow up in his face and this was no exception.

Two things happened as a result of this move. The morning after the premiere of 24 the ratings were good but not great. I don't know if it was Fear Factor, an incompatible lead in or a marketing campaign that may not have captured the essence of the show (very tough to do) but before I had a chance to call Joel my phone rang and it was him...to this day I remember his exact words...."the ego has landed".  Joel, along with several of us at FOX, were so convinced we had a hit that the ratings threw us for a loop. We talked for a while about what happened and I reassured him that we were behind the show, the episodes were outstanding and we were going to tough it out. I think that the disappointment in the premiere ratings strengthened Joel's resolve to make this an epic show.

We never wavered and the following week, without Fear Factor (thank you Jeff) the ratings started moving in the right direction 24 went on to a phenomenal year in terms of ratings and creativity. As the season was winding down we faced a pivotal decision...whether of not to have Nina Myers (the first in a long line of CTU moles) kill Jack's wife Teri in the final episode of the season. As would be expected there were differing opinions. This show broke so many rules, how can we not end it in an unexpected and shocking way? Will fans of the show come back next season if we do not give them a satisfying upbeat ending?

Remember, 24 in its first season was, at its center, a family drama about Jack looking for his kidnapped daughter Kim. We shot two endings. We were in the scheduling room when David Nevins said we needed to make a decision and lock the final episode. David, Gail and I looked at the alternatives. I believe we went around the building and found some fans of the show and let them look at the alternatives, We debated and eventually decided that in the spirit of the show Teri Bauer would be killed. I think that was the most pivotal decision in the history of 24.

I remember the night of the finale watching the episode at home with Ms. Masked Scheduler. She was a huge fan of the show and she never wanted to know what was going to happen. I had no idea how she would react but I respect her TV instincts (an excellent picker of hits on all the networks). The scene came on and I'm waiting for the explosion of outrage. She shed some tears, looked at me and said "Well that's the show.".Jack was on his path and we had a hit on our hands.

The following season 24 came back to Tuesday night and for the next two years the show followed American Idol for the second half of its season. The ratings improved in year two but, typical of most television shows, we saw some erosion in season three. We did some audience research to see what was going on and something that stood out to me was the frustration among the fans about stretching out a show told in real time over a full television season. I had an epiphany. I called up MJ LaVaccare, my scheduling partner in crime, "Hey MJ let's do the Hebrew version of scheduling 24 (MJ knew by that I meant starting with the last episode of a show and scheduling backwards...a little scheduling trick). Let's assume it's on Monday away from the Idol disruptions and assume it is never preempted."

We played around with it and came up with a plan to launch it as a four hour Sunday/Monday event coming right out of an NFL playoff game and end it with a two hour finale in May. This meant saving 24 for mid-season. We would also follow the two night premiere of 24 with the two night four hour return of American Idol (entering it's fourth season). I called it our "shock and awe" moment….four hours of 24 followed by four hours of Idol.

I was about to have my second fateful call with Joel Surnow.  I walked him through the plan and the rationale for doing this. I promised him that, out of respect for him and the show, I would not approach my bosses with this idea unless he was fully on board. Joel bought in and the following year we made the move and the ratings improved. Season five ratings grew again and matched the all time high season two numbers Season five culminated in an Emmy for Kiefer and the show.

Yesterday, when FOX went out with the 24 announcement, I immediately flashed to that moment in COSTCO...looking at the 24 display and realizing just how random this business can be. How many hits were a decision away from disaster and how many misses may have followed a different path in different hands. 24 was one that we all got right. It's had a great run. Let's appreciate it for all it has accomplished.

No need (Tim Goodman) to be snarky about overstaying its visit...most shows do. But I will tell you that over the second half of this season Howard Gordon et al will throw everything but the kitchen sink at us. It's a wild final ride. Jack Bauer will live on and I'm looking forward to seeing him on Dancing With the Stars come Fall..he has time now and deserves to have some fun. So let's set up a perimeter and give thanks and praises to 24.

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