I have often talked on my blog and Twitter feed about the importance of “showmanship” in programming a network. I’ve lamented about the lack of showmanship in so much of what goes on the air today. Showmanship doesn’t necessarily require spending large amounts of money. On the contrary. Showmanship in the TV biz should be about how you make something out of nothing. How do you take what you already have and turn it into an “event”. Making it more than it is.
If I had any success scheduling two networks for over twenty years I can attribute much of it to showmanship. The one that I am most proud of was delaying the premiere of 24 until January, starting with a four hour “event” leading out of an NFL playoff game on Sunday, and running it non-stop for the rest of the season. Not only did the ratings go up after two seasons of declines but, in the second season of this shift, 24 won the Emmy for best drama and Kiefer Sutherland won the best actor Emmy.
At NBC we had a pretty mediocre series from Wes Craven called “Nightmare Café”. We had no idea how to promote it so I said “Let’s not. Let’s do it as a sneak preview.” So, we promoted a sneak preview on a mid-week night at 10PM showing all sorts of weird shit from the series but never told the viewers what it was. We did get an audience to sample it but, sadly, they didn’t come back.
I loved figuring out ways to make something out of nothing with the theatricals that we purchased. I letterboxed “Sound of Music” one year (at NBC we had the movie tied up forever) and we did a sing-along once. I had the cast do interstitials for another run. We had written off two “Star Wars” movies and I played them one weekend promoting them as the “15th Anniversary Celebration of Star Wars”. They were two of the highest rated movies of the year in their third or fourth runs on NBC and they cost us nothing.
Of course, not all these attempts at showmanship worked but I always (and still) believe that it is the most important characteristic of a good television programmer.
This morning I realized that fifteen years ago FOX aired the first of what was to become a holiday tradition. December 20, 2003, we aired the first COPS Christmas Special “HO HO HO” which featured three segments on prostitutes. I’m not saying I’m proud of this but here’s the story:
For most of its first fifteen years on FOX COPS featured a city per episode. Around the time I arrived the format changed to more themed episodes. COPS was always bequeathed to the newest network current executive because, well no one wanted to handle it. As a result, my sidekick in scheduling MJ LaVaccare and I would offer a lot of input to the current exec on themes for the episodes.
In 2003 we had a young current exec who latched on to me for advice and guidance. Of course, he was assigned COPS and as we were mapping out the 2003-4 season of the show, I believe its 16th, I had an epiphany. I asked MJ if we had ever done a Christmas themed episode of COPS. To the best of his knowledge (which was encyclopedic) we had not. “What if he did an all prostitution episode titled Ho Ho Ho”? MJ always had higher moral standards than me (if I had any at all when it came to TV) but reluctantly agreed that it was worth the shot.
I called up the young current exec and told him that I was about to do him the biggest favor of his young career. “At the next Current Meeting (held in out boss Gail Berman’s office) you are going to announce that we are doing a COPS Christmas special called Ho Ho Ho”. I didn’t have to go any further. He knew where I was going with this. The kid flipped out begging me not to make him do it. I explained that he will get kudos for this which I didn’t need at that point in my career.
I talked him down and, at the next current meeting, he nervously pitched this episode…not with a lot of enthusiasm I may add. As I expected he got applause for the pitch. This was FOX. The home of Mike Darnell and “When Animals Attack” so, of course we do things like this.
As the meeting ended, while my “student” was getting atta boys and high fives. Gail pulled me aside. “That was you” she said. I just smiled.
Showmanship. We need more of it in the TV business and we need more creative executives who are willing to go for it and make something out of nothing.
Ho Ho Ho