Net scheduling---how did it get so crazy?

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I started poring over the ratings in Nielsen Pocket Pieces when I was 9 years old. Two years later, I learned there were jobs at networks that picked shows and decided where they went on the schedule. From that moment, I wanted one of those jobs. It still amazes me that for 18 of my almost 20 years at ABC, I was fortunate enough to either be involved in or in charge of setting the prime-time schedule. After four years at NBC,I'm now at E! and Style, and scheduling from the fascinating, and comparatively healthy, vantage point of cable.

As luck would have it, this means I've been a student and/or practitioner of network scheduling for 40 years. Now that I've regained consciousness, I should admit that only just now am I starting to understand this bizarre ritual that determines the prime-time schedules that are broadcast to more than 100 million American homes.

The system is crazy. Our system of research and development is, to put it nicely, unique. When Kellogg Co. introduces a new cereal, is its testing wrong as often as ours is? Do a bunch of suits munch a couple of bowls then nervously tell the marketing guy to finish the spot so it can be shown to several thousand buyers at the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall the next day? Never been to Battle Creek, but I don't think so.

The dirty word in network scheduling is "constituencies."

Too many screening

Everyone knows how many departments get a say in the schedule. One year at NBC we had 99 people in screenings. We all know why: This is where the money is; the success of the schedule affects everyone's careers ... and their bonuses. The problem is, there isn't a shred of evidence that accommodating so many constituencies makes the schedule better. Here's why:

After the West Coast makes a bunch of pilots, they call the caterers to bring cold cuts and snacks because guests will be arriving soon. Everybody knows programmers are emotional types who fall in love with their shows quite easily. With so much money at stake, it seems reasonable that more objective colleagues from 3,000 miles away come lend a hand. The East Coast tries to be as sensitive as possible, but this falls apart after two days. This is when the West Coast learns they were just plain wrong about many of the pilots they love. They learn that no advertiser will ever touch "Thirtysomething," that Roseanne Barr is too mean to her kids (and fat), that Tim Allen is too mean to everyone, that Brett Butler of "Grace Under Fire" is too blue collar, that no adults will watch the "The Wonder Years," that the news magazine can't move because the news star will be mad and that if "NYPD Blue" goes on the air, broadcasting as we know it will cease to exist. Which would be bad.

Back in 1993, when I was president of ABC Entertainment, it was entirely appropriate for then ABC/CapCities Chairman Tom Murphy and President Dan Burke to grind us on "NYPD Blue" due to its content, and it is to their enduring credit that they let us put it on the air. Further, no one should ever suggest that the West Coast has all the answers. But I do believe strongly that three things are true:

1) He (or thankfully, she) who will lose their job in failure should get the final call. I've never heard an East Coast boss say, "Wow, I really made some bad calls last May ... I resign." Accountability breeds ownership, which breeds motivation, which breeds success. I truly thrived, as did the schedule, under ABC's model of decentralized autonomy. And as you may have heard, not so much thriving under the model we call "other." CBS Chairman Les Moonves makes his own calls and it seems to be going pretty well.

2) Scheduling is not a team sport. Only after I left the network did I learn that giving script notes by committee is wrong. The writer might be smiling and nodding, but inside he or she is planning your murder. Really. The same holds true for scheduling. With so many opinions from so many constituencies, confidence and risk-taking plummet. ... and so does the schedule. After you add the opinions of 450 civilians in from testing, as interpreted by the well-intentioned research department, the programmer feels like Courtney Love in the morning. ... or worse, a genius because you've just been told that your new comedy is the highest-testing pilot since Guglielmo Marconi invented the tube.

3) It's not about being objective. It's all about falling in love.

Would you cable test a painting? A song? (Radio has tried. Doesn't work.) Have any friends in the movie business ever told you their "cards went through the roof"? I happen to think research is incredibly valuable, but I also idolize TV giants William Paley, David Sarnoff and Leonard Goldenson for reading it then throwing it away. I think NBC should forgo cable testing for one year. See what happens. You could buy an extra episode of NBC's new sea adventure drama "Surface."

Network programmers make terrific money. Find the best one you can, let them run their shop and fire them if they screw it up. It worked for me.

Ted Harbert is president-CEO at E! Networks, and a former president at ABC Entertainment among other TV jobs.

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