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.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

TALES OF LAW AND ORDER


Well I gather today is the 25th anniversary of LAW & ORDER. Here's a post from the original blog where I spin some yarns about the show.
 
TALES OF LAW AND ORDER
IN THE NETWORK TELEVISION SYSTEM THE VIEWER IS REPRESENTED BY TWO SEPARATE BUT EQUALLY FLAWED GROUPS: THE PRODUCERS WHO CREATE THE SHOWS, AND THE NETWORK EXECUTIVES WHO OFTEN SCREW THEM UP. HERE ARE SOME STORIES:                    1989.....towards the end of pilot screenings.....Brandon Tartikoff showed us a pilot that had been passed on at CBS. Brandon explained that the gimmick of this cop/legal drama was that two separate stories were told each week. The first half hour presented a crime (murder) and we would follow the police investigation which would lead to an arrest. The second half of the show would follow the accused through his or her trial and the resulting verdict. The structure allowed the show to be sold into syndication as half hours although it was an hour drama. Whatever. It was a solid gritty pilot and Brandon ordered some episodes so that he could redevelop it.  1990 Pilot screenings. We screen a somewhat brighter, less gritty version of LAW AND ORDER. The series started its unprecedented run on NBC in the fall of 1990. Sad to see the show ending its 20 season run but, to be honest, I haven't really watched it over the past several years and I'm sure there is plenty of blame to go around as to how this all happened...and it's not like L&O is going away, with two spinoffs still on the air and L&O:LA (Ray Davies must be salivating) coming on this fall. I was fortunate to get to know Dick Wolf while I scheduled the show in the 90's. Dick was always complaining to me about L&O’s lead in or lack thereof. I would insist that the show did not need a lead in, that it was appointment television. I even threatened to run a test pattern for an hour in front of the show (which was pretty much a fixture Wednesday at 10) as a stunt to see if it would affect the ratings. I loved this show and could not wait for the new script to land on my desk. The episode that took L&O to a new level for me came towards the end of its first season....SONATA FOR SOLO ORGAN....where the guys find a dead body in Central Park and the vic had a missing kidney. I loved it so much that, I believe when I took over scheduling in 1991, I actually ran the episode for a fourth time over protests from Mr. Wolf. It did just fine and I realized that this was a show that could be repeated over and over again. More on that in a while. The ratings for Law and Order were ok but not great and although we renewed it for a third season I believe that no one at NBC thought this show would have 4, no less 17 years left in it. Then something happened. In November of season three we aired an episode called HELPLESS which featured a secondary character on the show Dr. Olivett played by Carolyn McCormick (pardon my spelling). If my memory serves me well she volunteers to sort of go undercover to entrap a physician who was raping his patients and she is raped. The gang prevails in convicting the doctor. The ratings for the episode popped and I noticed that the ratings increase was driven by women. Law and Order's four leads were all men. I went to Warren Littlefield with the data. Maybe we need to bring some women front and center on the show. To Warren's credit he called Dick and in essence told him that he was canceling the show unless Dick changed the cast and added two female characters. Dick complied, the ratings started growing and the rest is history. Although Dick was always complaining about the lead in I do think that Law and Order also benefitted from often having comedy lead ins in front of it which gave us the opportunity to promote the episodes to a younger audience. On two occasions I pitched stories to Dick which actually became episodes. In season four Rene' Balcer wrote an episode called DOUBLES. Here was the pitch: What if Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were in cahoots. It was transformed from figure skating to tennis but it was "ripped from today's headlines". A few years later I saw Rene' at an NBC function where he told me he thought it was the worst episode of Law and Order ever....oh well. Law and Order was one of the first shows in the modern TV era to consistently deliver more than 22 episodes. After a few years doing 23 episodes we made a new deal at the start of season 8 were we ordered 24 episodes and were given the right to repeat each episode three times for a total of 72 runs in a season....and I used virtually every one of them. My second chance to pitch Dick an idea came before Season 7. Blame John Wells for this one. ER was one of the biggest shows on television and each year I would plead with John to give us more than 22 episodes. John would not budge and I could not figure out how we were going to get from the end of February to May with virtually no originals. The OJ verdict had come down in October 1995. The nation was riveted and it still resonated in our culture when I called Dick and pitched him an idea. I told him that we needed to give ER a break after the February 1997 sweeps period and I offered him the coveted “Must See TV” Thursday night slot; but there was a catch............he needed to deliver a three part "event" which would be the ultimate ripped from the headlines L&O ever. The gang takes on the "DreamTeam" in a murder story with elements of the OJ trial. Dick immediately bought in......one problem….Don Ohlmeyer had been a friend of OJ and Warren and I were concerned about how Don might react to something like this. So we went up to see him. Don's back was hurting and he was in the prone position puffing on a Marlboro. I cautiously pitched him the idea....he was quiet and kept puffing...."Take the rest of the day off, I love it". Part One: "D GIRL" aired Thursday at 10 in March LAW AND ORDER won an Emmy that season, something that doesn't happen that often for a show that far along in its journey. LOST, 24 and now LAW AND ORDER....wow...I hope a few shows that we're all presenting this week can pick up the mantle...I really do.


Friday, September 11, 2015

Back From the Dead


The Blog is back. Sorta It's still under construction and there might be some big news soon about where to find it but, after years of laying low, I can return to my tales of thirty-five years in the television business. Also, now that I'm a free agent in a manner of speaking, I am free make some observations on the current state of things without some thin-skinned assholes (you thought I was going to be nice? Yeah right) complaining to my boss about my posts or tweets.
So while the blog is under construction and I work out a couple of interesting things (stay tuned) I thought I would start posting my greatest hits which I'm sure, for most, will be 'New To You".
I thought I would start at the end. You see I "retired" two weeks ago. Really retired. No more corporate job for me. I do have a few interesting sand boxes I might be playing in but thirty-five years in the broadcast TV trenches is enough.
Two weeks ago I posted a farewell on both my Facebook and Twitter pages. It was heartfelt. I have made so many friends over the years. A few enemies as well. In fact my assistant of twenty-five years Kathy gave me a dart board with several familiar faces on it. She knows me too well. I'm sure some of you are guessing who's on it.
So here's the post and I'll continue to bring back some of the best from the old blog while I figure a few things out.

One love to all

MS
 
Well, as of today I’m officially “retired.” What that means? I have no idea. Stuff will come up (it already has) and there are a few things I’ve been meaning to do. If you see me playing the alto sax on a street corner, please be generous. I’ve been in the TV game for 35 years…20 at NBC and the past 15 at FOX. I’ve had a seat at the table for two historic runs in broadcasting…NBC’s “Must-See-TV” and the American Idol era at FOX. It’s time.

After winning our first “Sweep” at FOX we had a party to celebrate the historic event. Peter Chernin came up to me and said, “You’re either really good at what you do or really lucky.” I have no idea which of the two it is; but I do know that it’s been lots of fun and I have worked with and met so many interesting people on this journey. I had a chance to, in some small way, influence the culture.

As I prepare for new adventures down the road, I want to give thanks and praises to several people who have played a significant role in my TV career.

First and most important I am blessed with my family. We’re there for each other, support each other and love each other. I would always make it my business to get home in time for our family dinner. They have kept me grounded.

Kathy Farrell has been my “assistant” ever since I walked in the door of NBC’s Burbank offices. Her kind, warm, caring persona buffered me from the daily irritants of my job. She is family.

MJ LaVaccare has been my scheduling sidekick at FOX and we have accomplished so much together. MJ would patiently listen to all my crazy scheduling ideas and figure out how to execute them. Along with Anne Schwarz we made a formidable team. We dealt with many hairy situations like September 11, the Gulf War, Baseball disruptions, NFL overruns and phone number screw-ups on American Idol. We always stayed calm and got through the crisis. Donovan, Dougie, KMo, Yvette and now Erik have been our coordinators. We lucked out with all of them.

Dan Harrison has worked with me at two networks. I depend on him for so much. When I transitioned over to my final gig as Senior Strategist, I immediately asked Dan if he was interested in replacing me at FOX. I’m so glad that he was interested. He’s my little brother.

Melva Benoit has become a dear friend and I hope that we find opportunities to work together again. We put together an excellent FOX research group. Thanks to Laurel, James, Benny, Lauren, Will and the gang.

I could not have asked for better bosses over my career. Most of them have become my good friends.

Warren Littlefield changed my life. He had more faith in me than I had in myself. We built one of the most iconic brands in TV history with “Must See TV.” I was so happy to be at the Emmys last summer when Warren accepted his award for FARGO. He persevered and it’s finally paying off.

Don Ohlmeyer arrived at NBC in January of 1993. He protected us from the East Coast posse. Smart, tough, supportive and faithful to his friends, it was never dull with Don around. I enjoyed mentoring his Pepperdine students. I hope we reconnect real soon.

I have so much love and respect for Gail Berman, one of the toughest and smartest executives I ever worked with. We took FOX from the “coat hanger” network to a position of dominance through much of the new millennium. Gail’s contribution to our success lasted far beyond her tenure as President.

Peter Liguori is from the Bronx. I’m from Queens. Fortunately, Peter is a Mets fan so we could focus on the work and have fun together. No other boss gave me the finger more than Peter. He signed me to a long-term contract to keep him from firing me, which I believe he wanted to do quite often.

Peter Rice has been so kind and generous to my family and me. I enjoyed helping him transition from his successful run in the movie business to the world of TV. He offered me the opportunity to make the transition from the high pressure scheduling game to whatever the future brings. Thank you, Peter.

I was so fortunate to learn from some of the big boys. Jack Welch and Bob Wright over at NBC both impressed me with their vision and common sense approach to the business. I am especially grateful for all the time I spent with Rupert Murdoch. I think he appreciated my honesty and made me feel very comfortable in our one-on-one conversations. Peter Chernin was the best and made the scheduling room fun every year.

There are so many other people who made my 35 years in the business such a joy. It’s impossible to mention them all, but at NBC I want to give a special shout-out to the “closet cabinet”:  Rick Lacher, Jerry Petry, Ed Swindler, Mike Mandelker, Harold Brook and Eric Cardinal. We kept the place running while the big boys played. John Miller and I came out to Burbank from 30 Rock at the same time. John remains a great marketer and executive. Mike Nelson left the Milwaukee Bucks to become a pit bull in our press and publicity department. He remains a dear friend. Lindy DeKoven and I put together a successful movie strategy through the MSTV era. Things didn’t end well for us but we had a good run. Neal Shapiro and I bonded while building Dateline into one of the most successful News Magazines in the business.

There was an All-Star lineup of program executives during the “Must-See-TV” era. Several went on to wildly successful careers, so big up to Kevin Riley, John Landgraf, David Nevins (who made the call which brought me over to FOX), Jamie Tarses, Karey Burke, Joanne Alfano, Steve McPherson, Lori Openden, Robin Schwartz and Bruce Evans.

I learned so much from Don Carswell, John Agoglia and Brandon Tartikoff. I miss them as they have moved on.

Moving from NBC to FOX in 2000 was a real culture shock. I was the successful big time network executive now in the world of the renegade upstart network…just where I wanted to be. Let me give special shout-outs to Sandy Grushow, David Hill, Ed Goren, Bill Shine, Kaye Bentley, Joe Earley, Jon Nesvig, BJ Arnold, Jean Rossi, Susan Wachter, Ira Kurgan, Shannon Ryan, Scott Grogin, Gaude Paez, Craig Erwich, Marcia Shulman, Caroline White, Marcy Ross, Jeff Acosta, James Oh, Del Mayberry and Jon Hookstratten….most of whom are still toiling away over at FOX. Shout-out to two of my FX pals: Chuck Saftler has been a great ally over the years and Julie Piepenkotter has become a dear friend. Glad I had the opportunity to meet Heather Moran at Nat Geo. Barbara Chardovyne has made my step into the void very easy.

My years on the Board of Directors for the Entertainment Industry Foundation have been a blessing. Sherry Lansing and Lisa Paulsen are angels, and I am so proud of our efforts with “Stand Up To Cancer.”

I always tried to keep a low profile when it came to the executive producers of our shows; but some of them did break through the curtain and I enjoyed our conversations and collaborations. Special shout-outs to Dick Wolf, John Wells, Tom Fontana, Steve Levitan, Bruce Nash, John Cosgrove, Terry Meurer, Joel Surnow, Howard Gordon, Seth MacFarlane, Mitch Hurwitz, Simon Fuller, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick and Arthur Smith. Hart Hanson and Stephen Nathan are very special to me, and I will fondly remember my appearances on both “Bones” and “The Finder.” Finally, Josh Berman appeared in my NBC office one day over 20 years ago and we have remained good friends. He has had so much success with CSI and “Drop Dead Diva.” We had a chance to work together on several FOX projects. I’m so proud of him.

I have enjoyed my conversations with those who write about the TV business. Covering TV has changed a lot but Bill Carter, Steve Battaglio, Brian Lowry, Lisa DeMoraes, Lynette Rice, Joe Adalian, Mike Schneider, Cynthia Littleton, Verne Gay, Joe Flint, Gary Levin, Alan Sepinwall and Tim Goodman remain the smart ones. Keep in touch. I’m a good “network veteran.” I took it as a badge of honor when Nikki Finke blocked me from her Twitter feed.

Respect to my fellow network scheduling warriors: Kelly Kahl at CBS, Jeff Bader and Steve Kern at the Peacock, Andy Kubbitz at ABC, and Kevin Levy over at the CW. We know that scheduling still matters.

I saved two people for last. I could not have succeeded at either network without someone who would get in the sandbox and play with me. I was never any good if I wasn’t having fun. Fortunately, I found someone at both NBC and FOX to be my friend and playmate.

Vince Manze is one of the smartest and most creative people I have ever worked with, but more importantly he is my dear friend. When I left NBC and became a pariah over there, he never stopped calling every morning and Vince didn’t care who knew it. We have supported and stood by each other over the years. I look forward to working with Vince on some projects in the not-too-distant future.

When I came to FOX, the first person I called was Mike Darnell. I got on Mike’s radar when John Miller and I lured Bruce Nash over to NBC. It took a while for Mike and me to attain a level of trust, but we eventually became the closest of allies and also good friends. Through virtually the entire run of American Idol, Mike and I would be on the phone by 5:30AM going over the ratings and discussing the prior night’s show. Mike Darnell is the most unique person that I have met in this business. His passion, competitiveness and creativity are unmatched. I got to know Mike’s posse and I felt honored that they allowed me into their world. We were a great team for over a decade.

Mike, Vince I love you guys and thank you for being a big part of my life.

There are so many other people who made a difference to me and forgive me for not mentioning you but one love to you all.

I love television. You have to love it to do this for as long as I have. TV is better than ever. I watch a lot of it. It’s time for a new generation to take the reins.

So I’m “retired”, but there are new adventures and opportunities on the horizon. I’m starting to feel I might be busier “retired” than employed, so stay tuned. Peace and Love to all.