Last night I read that legendary programmer Michael Dann had passed at the age of 94. I hope that longevity is in the scheduling gene.
There is not a very large fraternity (and sadly yes it is overwhelmingly a male dominated gig) of schedulers in the history of Broadcasting. Schedulers tend to keep their jobs across several regimes. I have had more than one new Network Entertainment President come into my office and say a variation of "I don't know what the fuck you really do but you seem to know what you're doing and I have bigger problems so carry on". On one or two occasions a new President has approached me and said "I know a thing or two about scheduling". They generally get fired pretty fast. But I digress.
Mike Dann and I shared a few things about our careers. We both had long runs at two networks. We appreciated how scheduling could turn mediocre shows into hits. We both celebrated and tried to protect and build quality shows. Most importantly, neither of us looked down on mass appeal, silly, "low brow" television. For him is was the Paul Henning shows: "Petticoat Junction", "Beverly Hillbillies", "Green Acres". For me it was reality television and my friendships with Bruce Nash and Mike Darnell.
You see what Michael Dann and I shared in common was that we were both ratings junkies. In his obituary in today's New York Times this quote of his stood out.
“By and large I operated under a principle I was trained in, and that was that there was no such thing as a good program executive with low-rated shows or a bad program executive with high-rated shows, and I never changed my position as long as I was working in the commercial networks.”
I shared this principle through my entire career as well. That often put me at odds with several of my colleagues but I really didn't care. My job was to get ratings and if I could get them with "quality" fine but if I needed to go into the gutter once in awhile so be it.
So in honor of Mike Dann I will share with you one of the lowest moments of my professional career. This is from my late lamented original Blog. It's the tale of how I came up with the idea for a reality show called "MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS RABBI"
Don't judge me.
There has been some discussion of late about how CBS will be able to do another iteration of UNDERCOVER BOSS now that the show is having some success. Won't it be difficult to replicate the secrecy and won't workers know something is up especially if the presence of cameras is explained in the same way each week? Since I believe that reality TV is the pro wrestling of the new millennium I assume that UB is more staged now than we may think and that's ok. FOX was faced with a somewhat similar dilemma several years ago when we were stunned by the ratings success of JOE MILLIONAIRE. Mike Darnell tried to convince our leaders to make a second one before we aired the first iteration. Mike hoped that if JM popped we would have a second one in the can and therefore avoid the problems of replicating the surprise element. I think NBC shot two iterations of FOR LOVE OR MONEY for that very reason. All this got me thinking about the need for secrecy in the world of unscripted and one of the lowest moments of my professional career when I threw all principles aside in pursuit of a rating.
A little while after the success of our series MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS FIANCE' (a woman introduces a fat obnoxious guy to her family and tells them that they are about to be married) the Masked Wife and I received a letter from the Rabbi of our temple informing the congregation that he was about to retire. I had actually become buds with him. We would often have sushi and shoot the breeze. He was and is a really nice guy who now wanted to be known as "Alan" and not "Rabbi". A few weeks after we received the letter the Masked Wife informed me that she had been asked to join the search committee to find a new Rabbi. My mind immediately went to the dark side. What if Mikey (Darnell) and I went to the board of our temple and offered them a sum of money that would clear all their debts and in return the temple would allow us to find an actor to play the most obnoxious Rabbi ever. He would be introduced to the congregation and we would film his first few weeks as the new Rabbi. The committee can continue to find the replacement; we just want to do the con first. I even figured out the camera thing. We would say that the temple had agreed to allow the search to be filmed for a documentary on how a reform synagogue selects a Rabbi.
This all made perfect sense to me. I could not contain my enthusiasm as I pitched all this to my sweet wife. She just looked at me and said "You realize if I agree to let you go to the board we would have to leave the temple and possibly the area". I think my response was "Possibly but this is going to be huge". She said, "Go ahead". My wife assumed that I would eventually come to my senses. She called my bluff. That's what these jobs can do to you.
So I pitched “My Big Fat Obnoxious Rabbi” to Darnell who, not surprisingly, shared my enthusiasm. We played around with the idea for a while but eventually we realized that we would burn in hell if we did this. Mike and I still think of it as the big one that got away. Anyway, the temple finds a Rabbi and one Sunday afternoon the entire congregation assembles to meet him. After some speeches the curtains open to reveal the new Rabbi and his family. I turned to the Masked Wife and said, "That's a 40 share down the drain".
A few weeks after the new Rabbi was introduced I'm having a farewell lunch with Alan our now former Rabbi. I decide, what the fuck, let me share this crazy idea with him. I walk him through all the details; he sits there quietly for a minute...."How much money would you have offered us?”. So I give him a number, a number that would have cleared the books on the temple’s debt. "How could you afford to do that?".... I explain how production works. "Why didn't you come to me with this?".....................OH SHIT!!!!
So respect and praises to Mike Dann and maybe this story makes it into my obit.