The care and feeding of an Emmy contender

Programmers nurture quality shows through challenges

The care and feeding of an Emmy contender
All-time primetime
Ricky Gervais | Ty Burrell | Sarah Silverman | Phil Rosenthal | Ben Silverman | Taylor Holland | Gregory Itzin

Nurturing a quality but aud-challenged show from the brink of cancellation to the brink of Emmy victory is very much an art for TV programmers.

When it finished its third season, Fox’s real-time serial drama “24” was flagging a bit. Ratings were down, and artistically, the show seemed in danger of finding itself in a creative cul de sac. Everyone felt like a change was in order, or else season four might’ve marked the end.

Intuitively, Fox scheduling topper Preston Beckman had long believed that if you’re going to do a show that’s taking place in real time and stretch those 24 hours over the course of a season, it’d be best to never take a break. And the only way “24” could do that would be to start the show in January and run it consecutively through the May sweeps.

“It was always tough for viewers to commit to that show when they knew there were repeats coming,” Beckman says. “So we premiered it in January as a two-night, four-hour event and went from there.”

Following that move, “24” enjoyed its largest viewership in season four and went on to even bigger ratings and an Emmy win for top drama series in its fifth season.

Network schedulers such as Beckman, ABC’s Jeff Bader and NBC’s Mitch Metcalf need a certain combination of boldness and patience to keep such shows alive. Sometimes the series need reinvigorating, as was the case with “24,” and sometimes they require special care from the outset.

When Metcalf put comedies “The Office” and “30 Rock” on the schedule in the span of 18 months, he knew the shows were creatively in great shape, but also understood they would require extra care. While neither program became a ratings powerhouse, they have scored big with Emmy voters and the type of upscale viewers valued by advertisers.

“We thought beyond the ratings they were getting and looked at the potential on the backend,” Metcalf says. “These shows will be huge in syndication. Audiences have been finding them on iTunes and DVDs. It always made good business sense to nurture them.”

Metcalf points to “Seinfeld” as the “most perfect example” of the payoffs that come with such care. Beckman, at that time, worked for NBC, scheduling the network during its Must See TV era. “Seinfeld” had many supporters at the network, but, Beckman says, president Brandon Tartikoff was not among them.

When Tartikoff left NBC, “Seinfeld” won its first regular slot. Beckman then moved the show from Wednesday to Thursday in January 1993 against the wishes of many.

“I remember getting calls from people on the East Coast saying, ‘Boy, you just destroyed the show. It’s never going to be any bigger than it is now,’?” Beckman remembers. “But that long gestation period helped, and it became one of the all-time greats.”

Bader didn’t have the luxury of time with “Lost.” The pilot was the most expensive in the network’s history, and there was pressure to make noise right out of the gate. Bader chose to split the two-hour episode over two weeks and premiere it at 8 p.m.

“It worked out that the first hour was about the plane crash and the second hour was about the personalities, so the split made sense,” he recalls. “People thought we were crazy to launch a new drama at 8 o’clock, but it turned out to be a big reason for its success.”

With “Lost,” Bader faced the same problem Beckman had with “24.” Fans hated repeat episodes. That led him to a split season, giving “Lost” a midseason hiatus in season three. Beginning with season four, episodes launched in January and February so it could air uninterrupted.

“It had such a loyal fan base that it did well no matter where we put it,” Bader says. “It’s sort of the biggest cult show ever, and we listened to its audience.”

“Glee” might be inheriting that “biggest cult show” mantle from “Lost,” though with 19 Emmy nominations, it might be hard-pressed to maintain that underdog status. It, too, had an unconventional beginning, premiering in May 2009 and then not returning to the schedule until September.

“I think we did everything right in terms of creating interest,” Beckman says. “More importantly, like any show, if the show is delivering, you’re halfway there, and that show delivered this year.”

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All-time primetime
Ricky Gervais | Ty Burrell | Sarah Silverman | Phil Rosenthal | Ben Silverman | Taylor Holland

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