In my thirty-five year career in broadcast television the question that I am most often asked has to do with exactly what goes on in the scheduling room. Over the years, there have been several television writers who have called me up during pilot week imploring me to let them spend an hour in the room so that they can experience for themselves what it is like to set a network schedule. I have walked into scheduling rooms with several young executives who were about to experience the process for the first time and you could see the mix of excitement and fear on their faces. Last May was my twenty-sixth and final year in a scheduling room, over a quarter of a century, and for over twenty of those years I “ran” the room first at NBC and then at FOX. Let me take you inside the scheduling room..
As I mentioned in a prior post, I came out for my first NBC pilot screenings in 1989. Brandon Tartikoff was in charge and, although he invited me to come out to Burbank for the pilot screenings, I was not allowed into the scheduling room until the very end when Brandon went over the final schedule. The room was populated primarily with men and it was almost a religious experience to sit in the back of the room while Brandon, as only he could, went through the rationale for the schedule. Brandon would often stop to remind an executive about phone calls that needed to be made or points he wanted someone to remember for his epic upfront presentation in New York. Little did I know that in January 1991, on a totally miserable day in NYC, I would receive a call from Warren Littlefield asking me to come out to Burbank to be his head of scheduling. He was going to trust me with the keys to the bus.
But let’s go back a year. I came out to Burbank for my second pilot screening and this time Brandon Tartikoff let me into the room and he even allowed me to put up a schedule. Brandon and I had connected over the years. When I was in research Brandon and I played “dueling schedulers” with our Saturday Morning kids lineup. Brandon would go to the Sat AM scheduling board and put up his schedule and then I would put up mine and we would go at it for a while. He was using SMURFS, SNORKS, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, PUNKY BREWSTER and MT. T to test my mettle as a scheduler. In Brandon’s book “The Last Great Ride” he recounts how I would walk my dog on Sunday night (in those days the three nets aired movies and specials head-to-head on that night) and look into windows to determine what network the family was watching. Brandon would call Monday morning and I would download him on what I had seen. So by the time Brandon let me into the scheduling room he knew I was a sick fuck and addicted to the scheduling game.
So I sat in the back of the room taking it all in. NBC was in its downward spiral with THE COSBY SHOW starting to decline in ratings. It was clear Brandon had no idea what the schedule should be. We used magnetic cards (believe it or not we were still using them at FOX when I left) and Brandon was just moving them around the schedule with no real strategy. In the end he changed 11 ½ hours (more than half) of the schedule.
At some point Brandon looked at me sitting in the back of the room just trying to be invisible and hoping he wouldn’t throw me out of the room. Brandon told me to go put up a schedule. Of course, like others, I had put together a schedule and I went up to the board. I honestly don’t remember much about what I put up but I do remember two “moves”. I put SEINFELD on the schedule on Sunday at 8. I honestly don’t remember what I paired it up with. The second move was to put SISTERS in the Saturday 10PM slot (this is back in the days when we actually scheduled twenty-two hours). Neither show was on Brandon’s schedule. Both shows were removed from the board before I had sat back down. I did have some vindication. SEINFELD was on the fall 1991 schedule (my first year as head of scheduling) and SISTERS came on mid-season and spent five years in the Saturday 10PM time period.
What I do remember about my first trip to the scheduling board was how comfortable I felt being up there and how I could walk through the schedule and give a rationale (code: for bullshitting my way through) and it almost made sense. I had passed my second trial by fire and, a year later, it was my board…. well sort of. In May 1991 I had not officially been announced as head of scheduling so Lee Curlin, Brandon’s scheduler (Brandon was over at Paramount by then) was officially in charge of the grids. After we had screened the pilots and it was my time to put up a schedule I put SEINFELD in the Thursday 9:30 time period behind CHEERS. Lee quickly took it down and returned WINGS (an underappreciated comedy but no SEINFELD) back behind CHEERS where it remained. I’ll save the story of why for another day. SEINFELD did get on the schedule but on Wednesday night Where it led out of NIGHT COURT. That July I was officially made head of scheduling and for the next twenty-two years it was my board.
So what exactly goes on in the scheduling room? First of all, there is no scheduling room. At NBC the scheduling board was in the executive conference room. One year the conference room was renovated and the board was positioned such that when executives would enter the room from a side door they would smash into a panel used to close the board. It was hilarious and often broke the tension in the room. At FOX, for most of the time that I was head of scheduling, the board was in Peter Chernin’s conference room. One year I developed an electronic board that was built to replace the magnetic scheduling board. One problem, the screen was too heavy for the wall in Chernin’s office so I had to spend one year in the room taking shit for spending thirty thousand dollars on a board that would take down the wall. We stuck with the magnets after that.
As pilot week progressed we would keep getting down to a smaller and smaller group until we finally had the people who would be in the scheduling room. Here is where I’m going to piss off some people who may be reading this. If it were up to me, here’s whom I needed in the room:
· The President (Chairman) of Entertainment
· The top one or two Network Sales executives
· Our Head of Business Affairs
· Our one or two top Finance executives
· The head of Research
· Our one or two top marketing executives
· The big boys (in my tenure they were all boys). At NBC Don Ohlmeyer and Bob Wright. At FOX Rupert, James and Lachlan Murdoch, Peter Rice and Peter Chernin.
Notice who’s not on the list: the creative executives. By the time we get down to a small group they should have had the opportunity to pitch their favorite pilots to this senior group of executives but once it’s schedule setting time I always tried to get them out of the room. To be honest I was not always successful in doing that. I had nothing against them and appreciated how hard they had worked in delivering the pilots but at some point, for me, the room had to be populated with those who did not let a personal agenda dictate their decisions. We were now down to the business of setting a schedule. We were down to ratings, costs and revenue. Needless to say this attitude did not win me many friends.
Since, most years, the room was populated with more people than were needed I mastered the art of “going away” where, after putting up the schedule, I would get into some sort of Zen state where my body was in the room but my mind and spirit were somewhere else. I would generally play all of “Pet Sounds” in my head while these discussions were taking place around me. It was the only way I could keep my sanity as others ripped the tiles apart figuring there had to be a better schedule. I always had faith that, at some point, common sense would prevail. I also knew that most people didn’t have the guts to own a schedule and take responsibility for the final decision. I am the first to admit that I could be a real dick in that room.
By the time we got into the scheduling room I had a pretty good idea as to where we would wind up with the schedule. For a few months I had spent lots of time talking with the various constituencies, screened the pilots and listened to the research. Throughout my scheduling career I would tell everyone that the best schedule was the sales schedule. Entertainment had spent the prior ten or eleven months developing, marketing, managing and scheduling the product but, as soon as we returned from NYC after the upfront presentations, the ball was in Sales’ court, They had to go out there and monetize this shit and I felt we needed to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. Ironically, on this week’s “Silicon Valley” a tech COO says, “You know how you keep the best sales people? Give them something easy to sell.” It’s something of an indictment but there is an element of truth to it.
At NBC I had a great relationship with the two top Sales executives at the time Larry Hoffner and Mike Mandelker. Mike and Larry would come out to Burbank for pilot week. The three of us would go out to dinner the night before we started the scheduling meetings. I would hand them the grid with my schedule, we would go over the rationale and I would make sure that they were on board. The next day they were the first people I called upon to go up to the scheduling board. There was a lot of trust among the three of us. Larry would play the Vanna White role and Mike would do his best to articulate why this was the schedule that Sales wanted. During the good years we would discuss for a while but generally within a day or two we would walk out pretty much where we started. Every year at some point we would talk ourselves out and Don Ohlmeyer would ask, “OK so who do I fire when this doesn’t work?” Mike and I would raise our hands and we would be done…. our version of white smoke.
Some years weren’t quite that easy. When Jerry told us that he would not do another year of Seinfeld we needed to figure out what would replace the show in the Thursday 9PM time slot. In the mid-90’s that was considered the primo slot on Network television. I still remember the Festivus call from Warren Littlefield after he had met with Jerry. “Well we’re going to win the May sweep”. That was Warren’s way of telling me Seinfeld would not be on next year’s schedule. Warren, Don Ohlmeyer and I all immediately came to the same conclusion, which was to move Friends up to 9PM. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the scheduling room in May things got muddled as too many voices joined the conversation. Instead of moving the young skewing Friends to 9PM we moved Frasier back to Thursday night. By that time Frasier had established a Tuesday night for us. Moving it back to Tuesday led to all sorts of complications over the next few seasons.
There was the year we cancelled one of our movie nights, which resulted in WWIII in the scheduling room and created rifts within our already dysfunctional group. That was the beginning of the end for the group that put together the Must-See-TV era at NBC. It was so ugly and vicious that I came home after I thought the schedule was set (with the Monday Movie still on) and told my wife that I’m pretty sure I will be fired when we return from New York. To Warren Littlefield’s credit, we went back in the room the following morning and turned some people around on the move.
I remember the year we moved Mad About You to the 8PM Thursday time slot because the comedy we thought would fill the slot turned out to be a dud. Up until that point the 8-9 hour was considered the family hour and putting a show like Mad in that time slot caused a bit of a controversy. I was suddenly Public Enemy #1 among some pro-family organizations.
NBC back in the 90’s was an East Coast/West Coast organization with the East being Business/Sports and News while the West was Entertainment. Every year the EC execs would come out thinking we were a bunch of clueless airheads and each year we sent them back with their tail between their legs. One exec in particular tried to run the room every year only to be put in his place.
At FOX the scheduling room was, for me, a lot more fun. Peter Chernin really seemed to enjoy the whole process and, although we would generally wind up pretty close to where we started, Peter liked to turn over every stone. We also spent a lot of time doing anything but discussing the schedule. We were just having a blast. One of my favorite moments ever in a scheduling room was when my buddy Mike Darnell brought in a Russian Roulette-like gizmo where a few of us would put our finger in a slot and one person would get a shock. Mike, Rupert Murdoch and I spent an hour playing with this. Yeah that sums up what goes on behind closed doors in a scheduling room.
At FOX I was sort of the caterer in the scheduling room which meant that all the leftover candy and goodies from the screenings was brought up to the conference room and we were all on a sugar high for two or three days. I remember once losing track of how many Oreo cookies I had eaten (over twenty). I was standing at the board while some conversation was going on and I had to grab onto it as I found myself passing out. You could literally smell the sugar halfway down the hall from Chernin’s office.
I had developed a lot of tricks to get us to what I felt was the best schedule. I mastered the art of taking the contrary position to what I believed was in our best interest and get others to make my case for me. One year a certain top executive at NBC was so blindly opposed to some moves I wanted to make that, when I put up what he wanted, he went to the board and put up my schedule. I was sitting next to my pal Rick Lacher from Finance. He looked at me and whispered, “Wait isn’t that….”
I hushed him. Early in my tenure at FOX we were scheduling through the weekend and, even though it was Mother’s Day, we returned to the office for one final meeting. My boss Gail Berman was not happy with where some things were left on Saturday and asked me to figure out how to get others to change their position. While I stopped for gas I had an epiphany as to how I was going to do it. I was so excited I drove away with the pump still connected to my car. Four hundred dollars later I was on my way to FOX to use some contrarian arguing.
Having Rupert Murdoch in the scheduling was always fun. Out of respect I will keep most of those stories in the vault but I’ll share this one. Arrested Development was a show we all loved but was never really embraced by the audience. We all felt it had a shot at an Emmy (for what that’s worth) and, in spite of the ratings, we all wanted Arrested to return for another season (yeah heartless soulless network executives). Mr. Murdoch was not a fan. I had called Mitch Hurwitz at some point during the season and asked him if he could deliver all the Arrested episodes so that I could finish the season in early April. He asked why and I told him with total honesty that I did not want the show on in May when we were setting the schedule. I did not want certain people to be looking at low ratings for the show while we were trying to renew Arrested Development for another season. Anyway when we finished scheduling Arrested was on the schedule Sunday at 9:30 and Rupert was coming into the room to see what we had done. Before he arrived Peter Chernin turned to me and said, “Why don’t you walk Rupert through the schedule, he likes you”. I knew exactly what Peter was doing and, since we started discussing the schedule with Monday, Arrested would be the last show we discussed. I will leave it up to your imagination as to what happened when I said to Rupert “…and at 9:30…”
At FOX, Peter Chernin had his version of Don Ohlmeyer’s question about who to fire. At some point towards the end of scheduling Peter would say some variation of “So when all this fails what do we do?” That’s when I knew he felt we had exhausted all our scheduling options.
Back in the day networks would try to guard their schedules until the morning of the upfront. It was done to make the presentation more of an event and it also served the purpose of preventing the other networks from using the information to perhaps make some changes to their schedule. At both NBC, and for a good chunk of my time at FOX, I would encourage my bosses to position us as the first network to announce their schedule. I had several reasons for this. I didn’t want us to spend a lot of time in the scheduling room trying to outthink the competitive schedules. I had a mantra “Let the other guys do the dirty work for you”. Generally when you react to another network’s schedule you wind up hurting yourself more than you better your position. The best example of that was when Ted Harbert, in reaction to our move of Frasier over to Tuesday, flipped time periods for Home Improvement and Roseanne. He did more damage to his comedies and his overall schedule. Meanwhile, NBC benefitted from that move. By going first we got in the minds of the other guys and, if needed, we could react to their reactions but we rarely did.
Another reason for going first was to put less time between setting the schedule and the presentation. This decreased the potential for the schedule to get leaked to the press and, trusts me; TV writers were obsessed with trying to scoop each other with scheduling tidbits. I don’t know how many times over the years I would get an email (would never take the call) with a bogus schedule hoping that I would react and spill the beans.
One year at NBC I decided to have some fun with this and, after we nailed things down, I put a fake schedule on the board. My long time assistant Kathy Farrell had the key to the scheduling board. Brian Lowry, who I think was on his first run at Variety, called me while I was on my way to the airport. Brian was one of a select few writers who I felt comfortable talking to. Brian was looking for scheduling dirt. I gave him the bogus schedule. He didn’t believe I would do that so I told him that if he didn’t believe me to go over to the offices in Burbank and I would tell Kathy (who was in on the joke) to open the board (which had the bogus schedule on it). I was so impressed with myself until I saw Pat Schultz, our head of press and publicity, on the plane and told her what I did. Let’s just say she was not pleased and was desperately trying to connect with Brian to undo the prank.
Although the television landscape and platforms are evolving you would never know it in the scheduling room. All that goes away and the top executives at all the networks will still discuss lead-ins, timeslots and competitive matchups. That’s the way it was the first time I was in a scheduling room and that’s how it was last May for my final time in the room. It’s sort of endearing. I wish the schedulers smooth sailing in the next few weeks and make sure you have a copy of “Pet Sounds” on your iPhone.