Wednesday, December 16, 2015

THE DAVID LETTERMAN CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

Yeah I know that overnight ratings don't tell the whole story but they still matter and, at one time, they mattered a lot. Let me take you back to a time when overnights were the crack of the business and tell you a Holiday story I like to call "The Miracle of the Overnight Christmas Eve Ratings" and how a young Network Research executive asked Santa for ratings that didn't exist and received this amazing baseball jacket as his Christmas present.


I first told this story in May after David Letterman said his farewells to late night television but with Christmas approaching I thought I would retell it in hopes of it becoming a Holiday classic.

Here it is.

I was at NBC for the entire run of “Late Night with David Letterman”. I remember going to a taping with my very pregnant wife. After our daughter was born Dave kept us company every Saturday afternoon as we sat down to watch the week’s taped episodes while our daughter took a long nap.
Full disclosure. I was down in Florida for the famous meeting to determine whether Jay Leno or David Letterman would succeed the great Johnny Carson as host of the “Tonight Show”. I fully supported my boss Warren Littlefield’s decision to put Jay behind the desk. He asked me to come down to the GE meeting in Florida for advice, guidance and support. I believe we made the right broadcasting decision and both men had successful careers as late night hosts.
One of my prize possessions from my time at the Peacock is a leather sleeved LATE NIGHT baseball jacket that arrived at my desk in early 1991. It was from someone who worked closely with Dave and it was in appreciation of a little thing I did for her on Christmas Day 1990. Now that Dave has retired I thought I would share the story with you. Let’s just say it takes a certain type of person to host a late night show. I’ll leave it at that.

Back in 1990 I was running Audience Research (i.e. the ratings guy) at NBC in New York. This was a time before emails, smart phones and personal computers. Processing overnight ratings was a bitch and a few of us had company laptops that hooked us into the NBC mainframe where we could pull the overnight ratings. It was a very elaborate process. We would then call in to a ratings hotline and read the numbers that could be accessed by NBC execs and others.
There are certain days during the year when AC Nielsen would not release numbers. One of those days was Christmas Day. Christmas Day 1990 was a Tuesday and, on Christmas Eve, both of our late night shows were repeats.

Christmas morning around 10AM I receive a call at home from one of David Letterman’s top assistants. She was the individual who provided Dave with the ratings each morning. She called me (I was amazed that she could track down my home number) because Dave wanted the Christmas Eve rating for Late Night. I told her that Nielsen was not releasing ratings and that Dave would have to wait until the following day. She thanked me and I figured that was that. Well a few minutes later she calls me back. Dave didn’t believe her and insisted that he get the overnights. I told her I would if I could but I can’t and that I would be happy to explain it to Dave myself. She calls me back a few minutes later and is now in full panic mode. “Dave doesn’t want to talk to you he just wants his ratings and I think he will fire me if I don’t get them to him.” I told her “Look I don’t have them but I can make something up that will be pretty close since late night ratings don’t change all that much, and I will factor in it being a repeat and the lower viewing levels for Christmas Eve”. So we became co-conspirators and I produced an overnight rating. She was very grateful and I figured I had done my good deed for the day. A few minutes go by and I get another call from Dave’s assistant. “I’m sorry for this but Dave is now asking for the overnight ratings for EACH MARKET” I told her to give me an hour and I proceeded to generate made up ratings for EVERY metered market.

Dave never found out that those ratings were made up (they turned out to be pretty close to the real numbers) and I got a cool LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN baseball jacket out of it.


Thanks for everything Dave.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

LOOK MA I'M IN THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Alex Inter is a very bright young man who recently interviewed me for The Michigan Daily. I thought I would share his article with you all.

https://www.michigandaily.com/section/arts/masked-scheduler-interview

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

THE 2015 MASKED TEN

Time to share with you my ten favorite shows of 2015. According to a small handful of people who write about the business there's too much TV. That's total bullshit. There's as much TV as is needed to feed the myriad platforms that demand content. This will all shake out at some point and, sadly, several of the shows that fill most year end lists (including this one) may disappear in the not too distant future. So enjoy your favorite shows while you can and share them with your friends. Here are my faves (sort of in the order of faving) along with six runners up:

THE AMERICANS - FX
JUSTIFIED - FX
SILICON VALLEY - HBO
THE KNICK - CINEMAX
RECTIFY - SUNDANCE TV
FARGO - FX
JANE THE VIRGIN - THE CW
HOMELAND - SHOWTIME
MR. ROBOT - USA
THE RETURNED - SUNDANCE TV

The next six

SOUTH PARK - COMEDY CENTRAL
BILLY ON THE STREET - TRUTV
NXT - WWE NETWORK
EMPIRE - FOX
DEUTSCHLAND 83 - SUNDANCE TV
CATASTROPHE - AMAZON

So there they are. I prefer drama to comedy, I like a lot of shows on FX and SUNDANCE TV and only have two broadcast shows among the sixteen. I'm sure TRANSPARENT would have been on this list had I waited and had the time to watch all the episodes so I will reserve a space for it on next year's list assuming it doesn't disappoint....it won't. I wasn't trying to be a jerk by including NXT among the runners up and maybe I will write a blog entry as to why I never miss an episode.

I am not saying that these were the best shows of 2015 nor am I advocating that you watch any of them. Don't be angry if your favorite is not here....it's your favorite. There's a lot of great television out there. Don't complain about it or bemoan it, CELEBRATE IT!!!!! 





Monday, December 7, 2015

THE BOOK OF LIFE RECAP

Twenty shows premiered on the five broadcast networks this fall. They were all entered into The Book of Life. Entries were made following three telecasts. Here's the summary:

BUY THE DELI PLATTER AND PAY A SHIVA CALL (stick a fork in it, it's done)
MINORITY REPORT
HEROES REBORN
THE PLAYER
BLOOD AND OIL
CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
PEOPLE ARE TALKING
WICKED CITY

WILL CELEBRATE THEIR B'NAI MITZVAH (will get to 13 on the air)
THE MUPPETS
GRANDFATHERED

SET A PLACE AT THE SEDER TABLE (should finish the full season)
LIFE IN PIECES
ROSEWOOD
GRINDER

SEE YOU AT NEXT YEAR'S KOL NIDRE SERVICE (there's a second season)
BLINDSPOT
LIMITLESS
SCREAM QUEENS
QUANTICO
CODE BLACK
DR.KEN
SUPERGIRL
CHICAGO MED

So how did I do now that we are pretty much through the fourth quarter. Well I may have been a bit harsh on HEROES REBORN although I don't expect it to return for another season. I like CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND....a lot. Happy CW ordered more episodes but still with that JANE THE VIRGIN had a bit more support in its second season. THE MUPPETS and GRANDFATHERED look like they will go beyond 13 but I don't expect either to return for another year. LIFE IN PIECES and ROSEWOOD have probably increased their chances of returning for a second season. I still think the eight shows I thought would return for a second season will do just that.

Schedulers are generally a pretty conservative bunch when it comes to advocating the cancellation of a show. Historically they have operated in a world where development is a game and an addiction. There is a belief that 'we can always do better" when all the evidence points to the reality that we are far more likely to do worse.

Early in my scheduling career I asked the NBC audience measurement group the following question: In the fall, how many hours of new programming can we put on before we are better off keeping the current shows? I asked this not specifically about NBC but about network television in general. The answer: After two hours a network is better off holding on to what they've got than in adding more new product.

I asked the question out of frustration with the culture of network TV where there were far more people interested in developing and marketing new stuff than there were people in preserving and nurturing the current shows. Although I showed this research to whoever would listen we continued, as did the other networks on most occasions (this was the early 90's), to add far more than two hours of new product every fall.

There are several reasons why the broadcast network share of the audience has eroded over time. There are many that were beyond our control; but I do believe that the obsession with adding new product was something we could control....and we didn't. The good thing about all this talk of the aggregated audience may finally convince executives to believe what schedulers have known for decades: Stick with what you've got. So, for me, I hope more shows are given a shot at growing for a second season. I do believe that some of the rules of the game need to change so that there is less pressure on the business to cancel series.

Ladies and Gentlemen The Crown Prince of Reggae Mr. Dennis Brown





Wednesday, December 2, 2015

THE BOOK OF LIFE - PART 13

It's been three episodes so it's time to enter CHICAGO MED into The Book of Life. Here are the four paths that a new show can go down:

BUY THE DELI PLATTER AND PAY A SHIVA CALL (stick a fork in it, it's done)
WILL CELEBRATE THEIR B'NAI MITZVAH (will get to 13 on the air)
SET A PLACE AT THE SEDER TABLE (should finish full the season)
SEE YOU AT NEXT YEAR'S KOL NIDRE SERVICE (there's a second season)

Before I pronounce judgement a little housekeeping. I am going to introduce a fifth fate. The networks have figured out a way to cancel a show without cancelling it and that's this notion of "trimming" the order. Trimming is sort of a netherworld between abject failure (Shiva) and playing out a 13 episode order (B'nai Mitzvah). Starting with The next show to be entered into The Book of Life (I believe Superstore) there will be a fifth potential entry LET'S GO TO A BRIS (see what I did there?) which indicates the show is toast but the network is in denial so they snip the order.

OK Chicago Med

This is a business of failure and it's quite difficult for broadcast networks to program 22 or 15 hours of series every week. Over the history of the business there have been forms which can fill up several hours of a schedule so as to minimize the chances of risk. Movie nights (both theatricals and made-for TV movies) would often occupy two or three nights of a schedule. By the mid-90's News Magazines started to supplant movies as a go to vehicle for filling up time slots (by the way I have a cool story about cancelling the NBC Monday Movie....remind me). By the beginning of the new century, reality shows, especially reality competition shows like American Idol could fill up three to four hours a week.

......and then there's the "colonized hit"

Let me spin a yarn for you. I'm at NBC and sometime in the 98-99 season we find out that Dick Wolf, the creator of the wildly successful LAW & ORDER is going to give us another series for the 1999-2000 season. It will be a police procedural and will also take place in New York City. It will be called "Sex Crimes". I love LAW & ORDER and there is a love letter to the show from my late lamented blog among the postings here. We ordered SEX CRIMES to series without a script and there would not be a completed pilot before the upfront in May....but, hey, it's Dick Wolf.

As we were approaching the upfront something happened. We started to hear from our Sales Department that they were having trouble with the title SEX CRIMES. Advertisers were balking and this was going to be a problem. We were coming up with all sorts of alternative titles when one day the SEX CRIMES script arrives. Here were the first two sentences of the script:

In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.

I called up Scott Sassa who was running things at the time and I asked him if he had read the script. He hadn't yet. I read him the first two lines and said "Why are we driving ourselves crazy. Why don't we just call it LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT ?" A colonized hit was born.

CBS has has a lot of luck with colonized hits....CSI and NCIS. These colonized hits reduce the cost of failure on a network schedule. They also create universes which allow for crossovers during sweeps which often boost the ratings for all the shows. They are often mocked by the Television Intelligentsia but they are a valuable asset to a network.

Dick Wolf has made NBC Universal a fortune with the  LAW & ORDER franchise and he's doing it again with his Chicago shows so, regarding CHICAGO MED well duh SEE YOU AT NEXT YEAR'S KOL NIDRE SERVICE.

Next week I'll look back at all the Book of Life postings so far and see how I did.