Tuesday, May 31, 2016

MICHAEL DANN AND THE TALE OF MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS RABBI

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.


Friday, May 20, 2016

UPFRONT MUSINGS - THE NETWORKS GET THEIR MOJO BACK

On Tuesday morning after seeing the ABC Upfront announcement, and after evaluating the FOX and NBC schedules on Monday I tweeted out the following:



So this year the networks are acting like broadcast networks and casting their cable envy aside. This is gonna drive certain people bonkers.

Over the course of the next two days I found myself in two "conversations" on Twitter about both the relevance of the Upfronts and the level of creativity and quality in what was being peddled by the networks.

The first discussion was with Tim Goodman, Television Critic for the Hollywood Reporter and professional Bitcher and Moaner. Tim is that guy who, for decades you see standing on a street corner with a crazed look on his face carrying a sign saying "The End Is Near". He has coined the two TCA
annual events the "Death March With Cocktails" and each year mocks the Upfronts claiming both the networks and advertisers are in denial regarding the reality of Broadcast Television. It's only 8-9 billion dollars about to change hands. Tim also believes he could do the job of a Network President (or whatever the title de jour is) better than the incumbents but then questions why anyone would want such a well compensated job. Our exchange ended with the following tweet on my part.   


Monday, May 9, 2016

SETTING THE SCHEDULE - DEEP INSIDE THE SCHEDULING ROOM

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.

Monday, May 2, 2016

SETTING THE SCHEDULE - PILOT TESTING

The most dreaded part of the pilot process, especially for the creative executives, is sitting down with the Network research team and hearing the results of the testing on the shows that the creatives have devoted their time and efforts towards over the past half year. This is the moment when the voice of the viewers, represented by the research execs, is heard for the first time in the process. It’s often not very pretty. I have sat in several rooms where, following the test results, we all looked at each other and realized that we didn’t have the goods to put together a schedule and we needed to scramble. I have seen development executives updating their resumes in their mind while we go over the research.

Now don’t get me wrong. A lot of poor testing pilots get on the schedule every season either because we need to fill all the slots or because of a rejection of the testing. Here’s what I know to be true: A pilot that is rejected in testing will never succeed but a high testing pilot is no guarantee of success. We get a lot of false positives; we rarely get a false negative. The art of using testing is to look at all those shows that deliver an average test and determine if there is something in the data that indicates there may be a television show here. It is also important to understand why a pilot did not test as well as expected and then to determine if those issues can be addressed in series or are those issues at the essence of the show.

One of my favorite examples is “Mad About You”, a show that came along early in my scheduling career and ran for seven seasons despite having a below average test. We all loved the pilot but the testing was a disappointment. This was 1992, twenty-five years ago. The world and what was on television was different than it is today. Some of you may remember that Mad was about newlyweds Paul and Jamie Buchman. In the pilot the couple were wondering whether the spark was out of their marriage. The pilot ended with Paul and Jamie having sex on their kitchen counter while their family was in the next room of their small apartment.

That final scene put away the pilot in the eyes of the respondents to the pilot test. We really needed this show since we had  weak comedy development that year. What was clear from the testing was that the idea of a show about a recently married couple was appealing and the respondents liked the two leads. They just didn’t like them having sex on their kitchen counter. Problem solved. By the way “Mad About You was originally titled “Loved By You”. The pilot featured the James Taylor rather than the Marvin Gaye version because…. well you know. Anyway, when “Loved By You” didn’t clear I suggested, “That’s My Shiksa”. It was rejected.

The point of this is that there is an art to reading pilot testing results and often the only thing that programming execs hear is either it was a strong test or a weak test.
Strong testing pilots fail for several reasons. I have all sorts of theories as to why. The most obvious is the amount of money put on the screen for a pilot. The cost of the pilot far exceeds the budget of an episode. You often get a different director after the pilot so you have a different vision. I don’t know how many times I looked at someone in the screening room and said, “You’re never going to see that again.” A pilot can test well for several reasons but those reasons are sometimes not articulated to the producers by the creative executives and, by episode two, the show is off on a path that was not reflected in the testing.

I have always believed that the genre with the largest number of false positives is Sci-Fi/Fantasy. As a group these shows test above the average for drama pilots. They are generally more expensive than more conventional pilots but they are often concept driven rather than character driven. When you look at the testing among this group of shows you often see high scores for the “idea” of the show but mediocre scores for the characters. Most other genres are character driven so if you have strong leads you can overcome a show that has a conventional idea. Weaker testing procedurals will succeed more often than Sci-Fi/Fantasy because they are more character driven. Sci-Fi/Fantasy pilots have another flaw, which is that there is often a secret driving the show and once the secret is revealed the show is over. If the secret is not revealed fairly quickly to the audience viewers often start to wonder if the creators even know where the show is heading. “Alcatraz” was a pilot that we did at FOX and it went to series although no one, including the creators, had a clue as to why prisoners were returning from the past. So a good rule for me was that any pilot where the idea scores dominated the character scores had a better than average chance of failing. I have no idea what the testing was for “Lost” but I have to believe it scored high with several characters. Over at FOX “Prison Break” hit the sweet spot of a strong idea with several strong characters. “Fringe” found that sweet spot until it went off the tracks.

Execs often get very excited about these Sci-Fi/Fantasy shows. Marketing execs love them because they generally don’t have to do much work to sell them. They are noisy. Since they generally test well (even if for the wrong reasons) program execs generally put them on the schedule in their minds even before seeing the testing. That happened this season at FOX but my favorite example was a pilot called “Them”. It was an aliens among us concept. Melva Benoit who ran FOX research and reported to me, and I scratched our heads when we read the script and felt even more certain this was a disaster once we saw the pilot. Other executives did not share that opinion. They were convinced that they had a hit on their hands. That year, for whatever reason, the top execs asked us not to reveal the testing to anyone (including them) until after all the pilots were screened. The evenings before the testing results were going to be made public Melva and I sat down with the top two programming execs to share the results. “Them” was the lowest testing drama pilot that season and one of the lowest testing drama pilots ever. That’s saying a lot for a sci-fi pilot. The next morning, after we shared the research with the larger group, we were actually accused of fixing the results. That’s how strongly some believed in this pilot. Fortunately we had video of the focus groups that showed the reaction of groups to this pilot. It was not pretty. The results of the testing and the groups were so strong that the pilot did not make the schedule.

Over in comedy one of the biggest drivers of a false positive has to do with whether the pilot is about “People Together” or “People Apart”. A simpler way to put it is to determine whether it is a premise comedy pilot or not. A premise pilot (people apart) generally sets up the idea of the show and usually ends with the words “wait” “don’t go” “hold on” or some variation of those words as the star of the show is walking out the door. You often feel good at the end of a premise pilot but you have no idea what the series is and often the producers don’t either. “People Together” comedy pilots start with another day in the life of a group of people (family or friends) who care about each other. Some event may happen in their lives in the pilot (Rachael running into the Coffee Shop, Mitch and Cam bringing their adopted child home, Jess coming to the loft) but there’s no “wait” moment. These people like each other and care about each other and you do too. Those comedies are far more likely to result in a false positive. Two of my favorite comedy pilots in the last few years were “Modern Family” and “Jane the Virgin” both of which have strong, well-defined relationships at the start of the pilot.

Pilot testing often varies among the networks. When I was at NBC we would test the pilots on cable systems throughout the country. We would put the pilot on a channel and then recruit viewers in the market to tune in at a designated time to watch the pilot. We would then call them after the airing and they would answer a series of questions. Anyone on the cable system could wander on to the channel and watch the pilot. We knew we were on to something with ER (one of the highest testing pilots ever) when cable operators who were carrying the pilot told us that they were being deluged with calls from customers who came upon ER and wanted to know when the second episode would run.

When I first came to FOX we would send out cassettes to subjects who would then be contacted for their input. In recent years we have been doing mall intercepts throughout the country where the subject would watch the pilot and then answer questions on a screen. So what does the test tell us? I‘m sure all the networks do some version of asking the subjects to rank the show on a scale of Excellent to Poor. They then compare the score for a pilot with the average score of all previously tested pilots. Next they will ask a question to try to determine how much of an effort will the subject make to view another episode of this show. Next the characters are evaluated. There are generally norms for leads and support characters. High testing pilots are above the norms in Excellent, Special Effort and Characters (you want to see several characters pop). Finally a series of diagnostic questions will be asked to determine network fit, the strength of the idea, level of involvement etc.

We also do theater testing in the Los Angeles area. We try to recruit equal groups of men/women young/old (18-34-35-49). While they watch the pilot in a theater they are asked to move a lever up (positive) or down (negative) to express their feelings about what they are seeing.  At any point during the screening the subject can indicate that they has “tuned out” the show. Research execs and others watch screens with an overlay of the lines broken out into the four quadrants.

We would be looking at the age and gender split and we would be interested in the growth of the lines over the course of the pilot. In a perfect world you would want to see little difference in the four quadrants and you are looking for the line to build over the course of the pilot. You can see points where the pilot drags and how long it takes to get the subjects invested in what is going on. “New Girl” had the classic line with all four quadrants in sync and moving upward throughout the episode.

To me, the importance of audience testing was to try to find the “why” in a show. I was less concerned about what viewers liked about a specific show but what were the universal elements that can be found is all successful shows. I would often ask our Research Department (at both NBC and FOX) to do some testing on successful shows on other networks to see if we can get at the essence of why the show was working. Over the years I discovered a couple of recurring themes:
·      Ordinary people in extraordinary situations
·      Man  (or woman) on a mission
·      Fish out of water
I’ll leave it up to you to think of successful shows (both scripted and unscripted) where you find these elements.

For procedurals we have found that the core elements are:
·      Two leads with a pinch of sexual tension
·      One lead a cop, FBI, CIA whatever
·      The other lead has a “super power” used to solve crimes
·      Support group of really smart people.
I just want to be clear that if a procedural has these characteristics there is no guarantee of success, it just seems to increase the chances of success. By success of course I mean ratings.

According to Brandon Tartikoff “all hits are flukes”. It’s hard to argue with that but I have always looked at this business in terms of reducing failure and investing in success. Testing is one of the ways to do that. At FOX when we reported on the testing we always presented the data (after we showed the top line) in terms of what needs to be addressed if this pilot will be moving to series. The point being if these issues were not addressed we were probably increasing the chances that the pilot would not succeed in series.

At NBC Don Ohlmeyer asked Eric Cardinal, our head of research, and me to look at all of our pilot testing and see if we could come up with a set of “Research Homilies”. These were truisms that were found in the successful pilots. If none of these were found in the pilot the chances of success decreased. Here’s what we delivered to Don:



Against our wishes Don passed these out, as we were about to screen the pilots one year. It was not well received by the creative executives who thought we were reducing the pilot process to a cookbook. Someone even leaked the homilies to TV Guide. All we were trying to say was that successful pilots share several of these elements while failed pilots are often lacking in them…that’s all.

This business is going through significant changes and I think why and how, and even if we test shows, will change with it. I do know we need audience feedback that goes beyond ratings. It’s always helpful to understand why something is resonating with an audience. It’s dangerous to leave that totally in the hands of critics. You need to listen to the consumer. I have a feeling though that in the next few weeks there will still be a meeting where the band-aid will be painfully ripped off. There will be good news and bad news. There will be surprises. The only thing I hope is that everyone listens.