THE OC premiered on FOX fifteen years ago this week. The show’s early August premiere grew out of necessity. You see FOX had a unique problem in attempting to launch its Fall season: Major League Baseball.
The season traditionally starts in mid-September and, while the other networks could run new episodes of their shows uninterrupted for seven or eight weeks, FOX would find itself preempted for the ALCS, NLCS and World Series on a somewhat random basis through October, and don’t get me started on rain delays and rainouts. We could not get our schedule going until November and then we were facing “sweeps” episodes and stunts on the other networks. It was not pretty.
Fortunately for us AMERICAN IDOL came along in the summer of 2002 and settled into its January-May run. This made up for our horrendous Fall performance. Still we were trying to figure out what to do in the Fall. We decided to break the traditional development cycle so that some shows (dramas to be exact) would be ready to come on in mid-August and get a six to eight week uninterrupted run before the baseball preemptions kicked in.
We didn’t make a big deal of this. No grandiose announcements at the Television Critics Tour that pilot season is dead…we continued our regular development. We just went about the business of figuring out how to get some shows on the air earlier than in the past.
If memory serves me we read a bunch of scripts and settled on two (possibly three) dramas that we would put into early development so that they could be screened before traditional pilot weeks. A few of us would screen the pilots and order two of them straight to series. I don’t believe we tested them before we made the decision. We went with our gut.
The two pilots that we ordered were THE OC and a quirky series called WONDERFALLS which I personally liked a lot. We were all every excited when we saw THE OC. It felt like we were back in BH 90201, PARTY OF FIVE, MELROSE territory and it had several things going for it:
· It had the nerd/bad boy friendship dynamic at its center
· There was the “shiksa goddess” component which always pops
· You had the whole FRESH PRINCE/GREEN ACRES/NORTHERN EXPOSURE fish out of water element
· There was a sad rich girl/bad boy sexual tension thing
· The creator Josh Schwartz (really nice guy by the way) injected a bit of a neurotic Jewish vibe into the proceedings which eventually gave birth to Chrismukkah, second only to Festivus in terms of holidays born from television.
What it didn’t have was diversity. After the show’s successful summer launch that diversity issue led to a heated discussion between my bosses and me over whether THE OC should follow the IDOL results show in mid-season or should we give THE BERNIE MAC SHOW (which grew with the IDOL lead-in) a second season in that prized slot. I lost that one and THE OC moved to Wednesday in the 2003-04 season. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the fifteenth anniversary and I want to talk about the premiere launch.
First, after ordering WONDERFALLS, with the producers knowing full well our strategy for the early pick-up, we were informed that the show would not be ready in the Fall. This was a typical ploy but non the less discouraging. The show wound up being given a tough time slot in mid-season and without the promotional push it would have received with the summer launch. WONDERFALLS vanished after its original order. We’ll never know what might have been.
The good news was this allowed us to focus exclusively on THE OC. As we started the campaign there was some concern that, by premiering the show in early August, we were signaling to the audience that this was a summer burn-off. In order to combat that perception, we made sure that the campaign made it clear that this was a ”Fall” series. We came up with the slogan “The best show of the fall begins this summer” or something close to that.
Little did we know that there was someone lurking at another network who was intent on destroying THE OC…Jeff Zucker. Jeff was, at that time the President of NBC Entertainment and sort of the Wile E. Coyote of this saga. Jeff decided that he was going to take down THE OC by airing I believe an original episode of FEAR FACTOR against the premiere. FEAR FACTOR was a success for the Peacock and representative of the taste that Zucker was introducing to the Must-See-TV culture.
When we saw what JZ was up to I suggested taking a page out of cable and running THE OC three time a week – Tuesday original and repeats of the episode on Friday and Monday. One of the benefits of launching THE OC in the summer was the flexibility that it gave us in scheduling the show for maximum effectiveness. It’s sort of how the AMERICAN IDOL results show came into being the prior summer.
Back then in the summer of 2003 scheduling and counter-programming mattered more than they do today so putting FEAR FACTOR against the premiere of THE OC had the intended impact. It didn’t demolish the show but, given the push, the ratings for the premiere were not what we had hoped for.
I was in Hawaii with my family when THE OC premiered. Before I left on vacation I promised my boss Gail Berman that I would get up early, find a computer in the hotel, get the numbers and call her at about 4AM on Kauai. I also told Mike Darnell our head of unscripted and my partner in crime at FOX that I was going to be three hours earlier than LA time so PLEASE!!! don’t call me when the ratings arrive. Mike and I talked ratings quite a lot especially during IDOL season when we would be on the phone at 5:30 in the morning talking overnights. Mike was an OC skeptic and thought we were out of our minds to try to launch a scripted show in the middle of the summer.
Anyway, I called Gail from the lobby of the hotel and we both agreed that there was nothing that we could do other than to hope that this strategy of airing the show two additional times each week might off-set Zucker’s dastardly deed.
After the call I crept back into my room where the Masked wife kids were sleeping when my cell phone blasted out some reggae ringtone waking the entire family. It was Mikey.
“So, what do you need me to give you for next week?”
“Mike it’s four in the morning, I’m in Hawaii, you just woke my family. I told you not to call me when the numbers came in.”
“Oh yeah, sorry, but what do you need me to have ready for next week?”
“Mike we’re not doing anything and my family is shooting me daggers.”
It took me a few more minutes to end the conversation but that was Mike and I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way with him. We accomplished a lot.
Back to Zucker. He felt that he had successfully destroyed THE OC and, the following week, went back to repeats of some scripted show. Fortunately, between that and the multiple repeats the second episode took a leap up in the ratings. Zucker panicked and put a repeat FEAR FACTOR against episode three but it was too late. THE OC had taken hold and I believe the ratings grew again and the “buzz” was beginning . Zucker’s moves gave us a great growth story to go along with the growing popular reception to the show.
THE OC was one of those rare shows where a plan actually came together. Program Planning, Creative, Casting, Marketing and Scheduling all with a little help from a clueless executive at another network contributed to the success of a beloved albeit fairly short-lived series on FOX.