Thursday, February 25, 2016

UPFRONTS.... HUH.... WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR.... ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.... YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH

March is almost upon us and that means that Pilot season is in full swing. I wanted to share with you all a post from my late lamented original blog on the Upfront presentations that I attended at both NBC and FOX. That's the culmination of the pilot process. In the following weeks I hope to take you behind the curtain and share my adventures during the two weeks leading up to the presentations in New York City. These will be my experiences and may not reflect how it is being done at other networks or even how it is being done at FBC now that i have departed.

We'll take a look at:

How are pilots screened?

How are pilots tested and how is the data communicated to the program executives?

What goes on in the scheduling room?

So, while you're waiting with breathless anticipation, enjoy this appetizer.

Next week the five broadcast networks descend upon New York City to peddle their wares…BOMBS AWAY...here come the upfront presentations!!! Yippee!!! Now I've attended quite a few of these puppies over the past thirty years. I was at the Hilton for the legendary Brandon Tartikoff marathons. They would start at breakfast and run for five plus hours. Back then I worked in research and Brandon would invite me to help him prepare for the upfront presentation. I was there to help him with the ratings (man did he love to put up the charts) but being the smart ass that I was (and I guess still am) I would pitch him some jokes which were generally met with cold stares from the Legendary Mr. Tartikoff. For example, one year we were moving Quantum Leap to a new night and an earlier time period. Brandon was looking for a hook for the move. I spoke up: “How about ‘If he can leap through time he can leap through time periods’ “…cold stare. I was at Carnegie Hall for NBC's 1991 upfront when Johnny Carson matter of factly told the audience that he was leaving the Tonight show the following May. I was sitting in the back of the hall with a colleague and we looked at each other with these "Did we hear what we think we just heard" stares.                                                         

That was Warren Littlefield's baptism of fire. During a chunk of the 90's Warren and I (with help from Eric Cardinal our head of Program Research) would write the presentations at 30 Rock over Mother's Day weekend...and we actually wrote them on legal pads. Warren's assistant Patty Mann would type them up...we eventually graduated to floppies but it was labor intensive.
                                                                                                                                 I actually had an opportunity to write a joke for Jerry Seinfeld. Here's the story: The presentation would generally start with some sort of gag reel generally featuring Warren with our stars. Then we would bring out our head of sales Larry Hoffner who would bring the festivities to a crashing halt by droning on for several minutes. One year, when we were in the middle of our four-season run as the #1 network, we were going to have Jerry open the show after Larry's speech. We felt that Larry would just kill the excitement of having one the biggest stars on network television doing a monologue so I was given the thankless task of asking Larry if he would defer from speaking. Fortunately Larry was fine with it. We told Jerry that he would open the show and Jerry asked if he should say anything about no Hoffner. I said, "Tell the audience Larry has no material". HE USED IT!!!!!!! The next year Jerry again opened, Hoffner did not go on and Jerry said Larry STILL didn't have any material. Fun times.

While at FOX we have had some epic disasters. The first upfront presentation I attended was on the Intrepid.... that’s right a freaking' boat on the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan It was cold and fog horns were going off during the presentation. There was one staircase leading from the upper deck to the party below After Idol came along we did an upfront presentation where Gail Berman tried to explain our three pronged scheduling strategy Year round scheduling…. sound familiar? We were mocked and ridiculed and then we went on to win seven (or eight?) seasons in a row in the 18-49 demo.                      

Nothing will top the disaster at the Armory on Lexington Avenue. The year before this debacle we held our upfront at City Center and I guess there were some complaints that important media buyers were given bad seats. George Oswald, our events planner extraordinaire was tasked with finding a different venue. We wind up in a fucking Armory on a hot muggy afternoon. It was 80 degrees and humid inside,  Brad Garrett made some joke about banging Ryan Seacrest and Kiefer came out to tell everyone it was pouring outside....the roof then started to leak. It was the most disastrous upfront I ever attended.  
                                                                                                                        Which gets me to the point of all this. I left the armory with a good friend in Programming, Craig Erwich. We grabbed a cab to the Upper East Side for our party.... yet another disaster. Craig was devastated. We do all this work and it's undermined by this crappy presentation. I looked at him and said that none of this really matters.... it’s all bullshit.... the buyers will eat our shrimp and drink our booze and then go back and watch the full pilots and share out the schedules. Sure we may take a hit in the press and the trade publications for a day or so but so what. I really believed that.                                                                                                  

Guess what? The media buyers, in spite of that abomination of an upfront presentation, did not punish us. The following year we did the entire presentation in an hour (and back at City Center). We got kudos not because we necessarily had better shows, but because we got everyone to the booze and the shrimp quicker than in prior years. That's all that really matters. I went on a jihad at work to do away with the upfront presentation and just have a kick ass party in the evening. Put everything else on line so that agencies can see the trailers and we can give them a rationale for the schedule. It would save us quite a bit of money, we would enter the 21st century and there would be no impact on what we would bring in. Someone will do it but doesn't look like it will be us. So next week all the networks will again lead with their chin. There will be talent to embarrass us, trailers that fall flat, schedules that don't make sense, and shows that will never make it to the Fall. I continue to wonder if it really matters. At least Brandon knew how to put everyone to sleep for five hours


Sunday, February 14, 2016

THE BOOK OF LIFE - PART 16

Been a bit distracted so I realized that two series have aired three episodes, so before a new wave of Network premieres hits the "airwaves" let's quickly enter DC'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW and LUCIFER into The Book of Life. Good news for both I believe.

First here are the possible fates of new shows:

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)
LET'S GO TO A BRIS (the order will be snipped)
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)

I'm pretty sure no official decision has been announced yet but I expect to see both shows at next year's Kol Nidre service or later for TuBiShvat, Purim or Passover.

DC'sLOT is a no brainer as the CW continues to expand its DC Universe and I don't think we've seen the end of this expansion. As I have said on several occasions Network TV is a business of failure and the goal of network executives is to reduce the cost of failure and buy into success. Law and Order, NCIS and Dick Wolf's Chicago are all examples of increasing the chances of success in a series. For those who say this is uninspired programming my response is that the more you can program hours of a schedule with limited downside the more likely you are to keep something on the air that would often get cancelled. During the Must-See-TV years "Homicide: Life on the Street" was allowed to live on Friday nights for several years because so much of our schedule was so successful both in ratings and revenue.
So kudos to the CW for building out this Universe and, hopefully this will allow them to leave "Crazy Ex Girlfriend" and "Jane the Virgin" alone on Monday nights. I would like that.

I'm pretty sure we will also be seeing LUCIFER at next year's Kol Nidre service. Whereas the odds of DC'sLOT succeeding is built on being part of a successful franchise, LUCIFER's successful start come from two factors. 
Yeah scheduling still matters and putting the show behind "The X Files" followed by a stint behind "Gotham" goes a long way towards propping up LUCIFER's ratings until it can hopefully build its own audience.
The other way that LUCIFER has increased its chance of success is by adhering to one of the most tried and true procedural formats: the He's a She's a.....
"Bones" "Rosewood" "Castle" "Limitless" "Elementary" "Sleepy Hollow" "iZombie" "Grimm"  all follow this tried and true formula of a two person lead where one character is a member of law enforcement who is aided by a partner with a "super" power i.e they have a skill which aides in solving the crime of the week. Generally the partners are male/female. It doesn't work all the time (see the horrific Minority Report) but if it's cast well, incorporates some humor and a dollop of sexual tension these puppies can run for several seasons.
Good leadin and a tried and true formula should keep LUCIFER around for a while even though it is a Warner Brothers show. With the success of "Gotham" (which, between you and me, returns with a string of really solid episodes.....AND PEE WEE!!!!!!!!) I have a feeling there will be a bit of horse trading going on between the outside studio and FOX.

Again sorry of the delay but with new stuff on the horizon I want to make sure that the Book was updated before I have to go out for some deli platters.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

WHAT IF IT FAILS? SHIT, WHAT IF IT WORKS?

Here's an entry from my late lamented blog about the fear of failure and overthinking scheduling moves. It was inspired by an on sides kick in the Super Bowl. Enjoy

Last night Sean Payton made one of the ballsiest calls ever in a Super Bowl when the Saints started off the second half of the game with an onside kick. This morning on ESPN's "Mike and Mike Show" (yeah I listen to ESPN in the morning rather than NPR.... sue me) Coach Ditka, in talking about the call, praised Payton by saying that, rather than approaching the play from a perspective of "what if this fails" Payton starts from "what if it works".  Success will come to those who are not afraid to fail and that has always been the case in the world of scheduling. The biggest obstacle to success that I have experienced in all my years playing this game is paralysis by analysis. The more we talk about a scheduling move the less likely it is to happen because at some point the discussion comes around to "what if you're wrong?" “What if it fails?” That’s when I know I'm fucked Nobody's right all of the time and obviously the riskier the move the greater the chance of failure, but to never do the crazy thing, to never go out on the ledge, results in stagnation and failure.

The thing about television is you can always unscramble the egg.... look at NBC and Leno.... so I'm always willing to start from the perspective of what if this works? The worst thing that can happen to me is I get fired and, trust me; there are far worse things in life In thinking about the Super Bowl play this morning I remembered two (of many) scheduling moves that almost didn't happen because of over thinking and naval contemplation. Thought I would share them with you.                                                                                                                                            In May '98, towards the end of my NBC career we screened a pilot about a doctor who returns to her home town of Providence RI, goes to work in a clinic and moves back in with her father, a veterinarian. The pilot met with mixed reaction during the screenings. I screened the pilot in a room with our head of press and publicity. She was visibly uncomfortable watching it. Providence tested well and had enough support for it to be picked up as a mid-season show.  We did not get off to a good start in the Fall 1998 and, as we were thinking about mid-season changes, I suggested that we put Providence in the Friday 8pm slot since there appeared to be nothing for "older" (25-54) women in the time period. We watched several episodes and the consensus was that it was pretty good and worth the shot.
                                                                                                           The January TCA (press critics) tour was coming up and our head of press and publicity argued that we should delay putting Providence on the air until after TCA. I heard the dreaded words "What if it fails". The thinking was if it bombs that's more fuel for the fire among the television critics. I argued back "what if it works?" it would give us a hit to rub in their face and they hate us anyway so what's one more failure. Of course we debated this for days (paralysis by analysis), which made it harder for the marketing people to get going with promoting the show. We eventually decided to put it on before TCA and, guess whatProvidence turned out to be a success for NBC and lived in the Friday 8pm time period for several seasons.                    

To this day I never found out why our press head despised the show but the fun story was what Vince Manze and John Miller, the marketing guys did the day after Providence opened to solid ratings. Tom Shales, the TV critic for the Washington Post hated the show and in his review noted that this was the latest in a string of horrible shows coming out of the Peacock. He ended his review with this sentence: "NBC has done it again". Vince and John took that sentence and used it as the closing quote in a promo touting the fact that NBC had a new hit on its hands. Needless to say Shales went batshit and we had to pull the promo.
                                                                                                               A few years later I'm at FOX. In the May 2003 upfront Sandy Grushow brought out three actresses and David E. Kelly to talk about a show that had not yet been shot.....Girls Club. The thinking was that, on the strength of David E. Kelly's pedigree, we could sell the media buyers on the show. We did have a script so we were only 80% insane to do this. Girls Club was simply awful and that was reflected in the ratings.                                                         

That summer our head of unscripted Mike Darnell pitched a small group of us the concept of a dating show where the bachelorettes  were told that the bachelor was a millionaire when, in fact, he was dirt poor. We needed to keep the conceit quiet while it was being filmed but we all thought that this one could be big and noisy. We needed to put a January schedule together since this was the first year American Idol would be on in season. I pitched the idea of shitcanning Girls Club and putting Joe Millionaire in the Monday 9pm slot. Darnell was convinced that the powers that be would never agree to that move i.e. giving an unscripted show a choice prime time slot. To our surprise Gail Berman and Sandy bought into it and I assumed we were set. Wrong.                                                               

A few days after announcing the schedule changes we found ourselves sitting in a room with some senior FOX execs to do a little paralysis by analysis. We were told how much better off we would be with the low rated Girls Club than with swinging for the fences with an audacious reality show. Then the dreaded words were uttered: "Do you know how much money we will lose if this fails?" Again all I could do was look at the big boys and say "But what if it's a huge success?" "Well that would be a different storythey said. We stood our ground and with Idol, Joe Millionaire and the move of 24 to mid-season (another classic case of paralysis by analysis) FOX won its first sweep and has been on a solid run ever since.                                

I could site other examples but I'll just say props to Sean Payton and the Saints. An example to us all of aiming for success and putting thoughts of failure on the sidelines.