By mid-May the broadcast networks will have announced their plans for the 2016-17 season. In the good old days the upfront presentations in New York were pretty simple. Here’s the schedule. Here’s some backup. Here are some movies and specials. Here are the sporting events you will want to be part of. See you at the bar.
Over the years things started to get a bit more complicated. Broadcast networks, being part of something larger, started to include their cable channels in the presentation. Digital platforms started to become a factor in media buys. The concept of year round programming was introduced where midseason shows were often placed in time periods to show the advertiser that the networks were not going dark. As reality television grew the summer became more of a factor. There were occasions where a Network President would go through dramas, comedy and reality and then, as an afterthought, put up a schedule. And, of course, delayed viewing needed to be addressed.
This is not an easy business and it gets more difficult every year. What hasn’t changed much over the thirty-five years that I worked in broadcast television (research and scheduling) is the programming cycle. For better or worse, before we see any evidence that the shows announced in the upfront will succeed or fail, the development executives start getting pilot pitches targeted for the next season. Scripts start to get ordered, Agents pit networks against each other in bidding wars for the hot shows and talent. By December and January decisions are made as to what scripts will go to the pilot stage. Some shows are ordered straight to series. We blink and it’s late April. We screen the pilots, hear the research and set another schedule.
Sure there’s some off-cycle development but, to be honest, that’s still the exception and not the rule. Toward the end of Kevin Reilly’s tenure as President/Chairman of FBC Kevin sat in front of the TV press and put up a tombstone with the words “PILOT SEASON” on it. I knew that meant Kevin’s time was coming to an end. There are forces that want to keep the process in place and I believe there is a rhythm to all this that has been internalized by programming executives. There is an addiction to the process as it is.
So, as the scheduler, how did I fit in to all of this? Well, depending on who my boss was at the moment, I would try to articulate a strategy based on what I felt our short term and long term program needs were going to be. I would often be given the scripts of the final contenders to read and I would offer my opinion for what it was worth. I would also be communicating with the various constituencies (Sales, Marketing, Network Distribution, Press and Publicity) to understand what their issues would be come May. Depending on who the development executives were at the moment I would be offered rough cuts of the pilots to help me start figuring out a schedule.
All this would lead up to Pilot weeks which generally spanned the end of April through early May. At both FOX and, before that NBC, these two weeks were my show. I don’t know how it worked at the other networks but the responsibility for gathering the participants, figuring out how and what to screen, deciding how and when to present the program testing (at FOX both research and scheduling reported to me) and who would be in the scheduling room were all produced by the scheduling department in consultation with the head of the network.
Putting together a schedule is a lot like childbirth. No two births are alike and every year the scheduling process was different. There were the easy years and there were the disasters. Some years we would make the decisions, hug, high five each other and merrily fly off to NYC. There were other years where there was a lot of venom. On one occasion, I came home, packed and told the Masked Wife that I fully expected to be fired when we returned from the upfront presentation.
With all the changes to the industry I have been amazed at how seriously these two weeks are taken and you still see people go up to the scheduling board (yes we still used a board while I was there) and their hands would shake as they tried to articulate their recommendations for a schedule. I grew a bit jaded about the whole thing as my years in the biz were coming to an end. People would stop me in the hallways of FOX and ask if I was excited about Pilot week. I would honestly tell them no.
For the last few years of my tenure at FOX I chose to screen the pilots with the Script Club. They were the young assistants, and managers in programming and other areas of the company. I did it for two reasons. I felt that I could give them some perspective on the whole process. Talk to them about strategy and which pilots might work on our schedule and why. I have always been a teacher at heart. I also just needed to get away from everybody and all the bullshit. I know people worked very hard to develop these pilots but I was looking for an environment of honesty and I found it by hanging with the “kids”.
By the time we got into the scheduling room I had a pretty good idea as to where we would wind up. We had internal input on the pilots, we had the testing, and I had been talking and listening to all the constituencies. It wasn’t necessarily the schedule I wanted but rather the schedule that would service the many interests within the company with Sales the most important voice (in my opinion).
I would be asked to put up a schedule to get the conversation going. I would go up to the board put up the schedule and give it my best pitch. I would sit down and “go away”. How can that be the schedule? We’re going to have to talk about it for three days. I remember at least once when someone was talking to me while I was “away” and my pal Melva Benoit who ran research said “Oh he’s not here”.
Well now that I’m really away, I thought that it would be a good time to share with you all tales of my 27 years of Pilot Weeks. I’ll break it into tales of the screening process, fun stories of pilot testing and research presentations and give you a peek behind the curtain of the scheduling process. Hopefully, as the networks announce their schedules, these stories will give you some perspective. Maybe you will also have some appreciation as to just how difficult these jobs can be.
These are my recollections and in no way should this be taken as how things have worked at the other shops, nor how it will be at FOX this year. However, there may be some nodding of heads if anyone actually reads this.