In early May 1989 I walked into my first pilot screening room. It was the conference room at NBC in Burbank. I was VP Audience Research and had come out to the west coast with my boss and a few other east coast executives. Brandon Tartikoff was President of Entertainment at the time. I had gotten to know Brandon over the prior few years and was involved in helping him put together some of his legendary marathon upfront presentations that would start in the morning after breakfast and run all the way to lunch.
I was really excited about this opportunity having been a TV addict my entire life and living out my dream of working in the television industry which, at that point was pretty much the three broadcast networks and an upstart FOX. Don Carswell, who was the CFO of NBC and my mentor, warned me that I would come home from this process somewhat disillusioned. He was right. I assumed that there was some strategy behind what pilots were being developed and that there was a sense of where the schedule was going moving forward. Neither was the case. We screened somewhere between twenty and thirty pilots and my head was spinning by the end. Two pilots did stand out and, although neither of them made the 1989-90 schedule, they did play a significant role in NBC’s success in the Must-See-TV 90’s: Seinfeld and Law&Order. Both had interesting origins.
Rick Ludwin, who was the head of our Specials and Late Night group, developed Seinfeld. In the screening room Rick sheepishly, almost apologetically, introduced the pilot. He had used money from his Specials budget to fund the pilot and wanted us to know it was “different” and he wasn’t sure if it was a television show. Low bar Rick. Many of us loved it, some did not including Brandon who did say that it was too Jewish and too New York. Fortunately we ordered four episodes and screened Seinfeld again in 1990.
Law&Order was screened on the final day of pilot screenings. It was developed at CBS and they had passed on it. I have written about L&O on the blog and how Brandon salvaged it from the reject pile. It was another show that did not make the Fall schedule and was redeveloped into a less gritty version of the original CBS pilot. It was also rescreened again a year later and made the 90-91 schedule. Fortunately, for me, by the time I became head of scheduling in the summer of 1991 these two important pieces were in my quiver.
Back to the screening room. If my memory serves me there were about thirty to forty people in the room. There were the programming executives, two or three Sales execs, our CFO (Don), our head of Business Affairs (John Agoglia who would be an important ally over most of my years in scheduling at NBC), heads of Marketing, the head of Casting, our top Press and Publicity people and Bob Wright the head of NBC. We started screening on a Monday morning and continued all week and into the weekend. We screened pilots in the morning and into the night. By the end I had no idea what I had just screened but it was clear that a lot of these pilots were done because of favors or commitments. I also started to learn that a lot of the time slots on the schedule were “promised” to studios in order to make better deals for existing hit shows. These were valuable lessons that stayed with me through my career.
The screening process stayed the same over the next few years but at some point we started to include more people until the conference room was packed and, as you would assume, with more people came less honest discussion of the pilots. It came to a head one year when there was one dominant voice in the room and, rather than screenings being an occasion to come together as a group, everyone was leaving the room demoralized.
My boss, Warren Littlefield, was concerned and asked if I could figure out an alternative to the group screening process. I told him that we could either go back to a smaller group which could stand up to a dominant voice or we can do something different. I thought about how people watch TV in the real world and I recommended screening in small groups all over the building. We would replicate a “family” environment where everyone could be comfortable expressing their opinions. I also suggested that we would make these groups diverse by populating them with people from as many different departments as possible; and we would try to put people from different management levels together. Finally, I felt that it would give us a different read on the pilots. Would the groups come back with the same reaction to a pilot or would we find that the response would differ among the groups?
The small group screening process worked and continued at NBC for a few years beyond my tenure at the Peacock. At FOX we instituted a similar process which remained through the remainder of my tenure. At FOX we would screen the pilots in offices rather than conference rooms. Each group would have a host who was a senior “adult” executive who would moderate the group and send the feedback to the top executives. The most Senior Executives, Peter Chernin, Rupert Murdoch etc. would rotate among the groups. This process resulted in great feedback on the pilots and a real sense of inclusiveness by the FOX employees. We also set up screenings for those not included in the groups. One year a decision was made to go back to a larger group and bring in professional moderators. It was a disaster and we returned to the small group format.
The fun part of the group screening for me was the way we assigned people to the groups. Kathy Farrell (my assistant through my entire scheduling career), Anne Schwarz (who organized the screenings) and I would randomly pick names out of a hat and assign them to whatever group was next on the list. We would make sure that there was never more than one development exec in a group and that every division was represented. We also made sure that the “problem” participants (those who like to hear themselves talk and tried to dominate the conversation) were assigned to a group with a strong leader who could manage them. We would always wind up with some interesting combinations. I would also learn a lot about the social dynamics at FOX as several execs would stop by and demand to be moved out of a group for personal reasons. Fun times.
As I mentioned in a prior post, I spent the last few years of pilot screening viewing with the junior execs and the assistants who had formed a “Script Club”. I wanted to hear from the younger people at the company and it gave me an opportunity to put the pilots in the context of what our needs were and how it would fit on the schedule. The only thing I asked in return was that they keep whatever was said in the room in the room. Although I am sure that was not the case with all I do believe most of them adhered to that deal. After we set the schedule and returned form the upfront in New York City I would treat the Script Club to pizza and go over what happened in the scheduling room and why the schedule came out as it did. I hope I gave them some perspective. By now most of these kids are all over the business. Hopefully they are putting some of what they learned into action.
At both networks I would let the development execs chose which pilots we were going to screen each day, and in what order we would screen them. They had worked really hard on all these shows and, although I didn’t think it would matter, I felt that they had earned the right to try to ‘influence” the people in the room by the screening order. I often saw this backfire. One year at FOX, on the first day of screening, drama and comedy colluded with comedy hoping to bury a pilot by putting it after drama’s most promising pilot. Well that most promising drama pilot bombed in all the groups screening while everyone was so relieved to see a promising comedy pilot follow it. Oops.
Since we made so many pilots at NBC I would ask the leaders of the two development teams to select a pilot that they felt was so terrible that they didn’t want us to screen it. One year the head of one of the development teams selected a drama that had come in on the transom (was not developed internally) called “The Pretender”. Warren Littlefield had passed it around to some of us when it arrived in the building. It met with a lot of enthusiasm by John Miller as well as Vince Manze in marketing and me. As some of you know, “The Pretender” was about a dude who was on the run from The Center, which took in child prodigies who could assume any identity. It was sort of a sci-fi version of “The Fugitive” and, like “The Fugitive” it was a unique way to do an anthology series. “Quantum Leap” was another example…. but I digress.
So we don’t screen “The Pretender”. John Miller came into my office and asked why and I told him that it was one of two pilots development chose not to screen. He asked if I had watched it. I had not. We test all the pilots and, because ”The Pretender” was considered a non-starter it was held as one of the last pilots tested. The morning that we were finalizing the schedule I received an email from Eric Cardinal our head of research. I will never forget the subject line: PRETENDER ALERT! Eric sent the email just to me to say that “The Pretender” was the highest testing pilot we had seen since “ER” which was the gold standard. It may have tested higher. He wanted to know what he wanted me to do since we had not screened it. I first went to the exec that had told me not to screen it and I told him I needed to tell Warren Littlefield. He said OK but could we test it again.
We called everyone together and screened “The Pretender”. It was well received. The testing came back as strong as the original test and we suddenly had put together a Saturday night of “Dark Skies”, “The Pretender” and “Profiler” the last two spent a few years on Saturday nights. Moral of the story: Who the fuck really knows. It’s all a crapshoot.
I estimate that over 27 years of screening pilots I have seen between 450 and 500 pilots. I can think of only a few that made the schedule because of the response in the screening rooms. That doesn’t mean that the rooms didn’t embrace several successful shows but that these pilots were “discovered” in the screening room. You could feel the excitement after the screenings. If they share any characteristic, they were different. Here’s my list:
· FREAKS AND GEEKS
· I’LL FLY AWAY
· ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
“Freaks and Geeks” was the biggest surprise among this group and had the added factor of being screened right after Columbine. There was a lot of discussion over whether this was a show that we should put on our schedule given the then recent events. We felt it was too good to keep off but since we never expected it to make the schedule we “buried” it on Saturday night at 8. I remember a few days before it premiered we started to get the reviews and they were wildly enthusiastic. None of us expected that response and by the time we moved it to Monday night it was too late to save the show. That was the first Judd Apatow show that I scheduled. The second was “Undeclared” a college comedy for FOX. That one was scheduled after “That 70’s Show” and led into one of Mike Darnell’s extravaganzas “Love Cruise” (or as we called it internally “Fuck Boat”). Good slot. Didn’t work. A few years after that Apatow actually singled me out as the person who ruined his television career. I never got the thank you.
Over the years you hear so many things in the screening rooms that would make your head spin. Out of respect for all involved I will keep them in the vault. I will leave you with my all time favorite uttered by someone who left us recently. Pierson Mapes was our bigger than life, hard living head of affiliate relations during a large part of my time at NBC. Pier coined the phrase “You scratched the surface deeply” which has lived in my head for over twenty-five years. Back in 1991 (at the very start of my tenure as head of scheduling at NBC) we screened a pilot called “Reasonable Doubts”. It starred Marlee Matlin as an Assistant DA and Mark Harmon as an investigator assigned to her. As you are well aware Marlee Matlin is a hearing impaired actress. After we screened the pilot and the lights came up in the screening room Pier started the discussion by saying “I really liked it but did she have to be deaf?”