Lessons in launching

Show that broke big in midseason began winning trend

The highlight reel of Doug Herzog’s time in the broadcast network business isn’t long, but it has a familiar theme song: They Might Be Giants’ “Boss of Me,” which accompanied the opening credits of “Malcolm in the Middle,” Herzog’s one unqualified broadcast success.

Herzog was a few weeks into his short tenure as Fox entertainment president, slogging through one pilot script after another and realizing to his horror “just how many of them sucked.”

Then he came across a spec script by actor-turned-sitcom-writer Linwood Boomer about the brainy middle son in an unruly suburban family, and he did something he hadn’t done much of since leaving Comedy Central: he laughed. A lot.

After Gail Berman, then the head of Regency Television, rescued “Malcolm” from a languishing deal with UPN, Herzog pushed a pilot through development, and at the 1999 upfront, proudly announced that the show would be airing Sundays at 7 starting in the fall.

Not that he ever had any intention of putting it there, not when football overruns tend to wipe out that time period for most of fourth quarter.

“That was always a ruse,” he admits now, “which had been a ruse they had used at Fox for years. We always knew that we were going to launch at midseason.”

But if Herzog loved the pilot so much, why leave it on the bench until January?

“We thought we had some pretty hot development,” he says, sighing. “We got all full of ourselves, and this was my first time around, so I had trouble kind of handicapping. We had a Chris Carter pilot (‘Harsh Realm’), and everybody thought, ‘Well, that’s a big deal.’ We had a Jennifer Love Hewitt pilot (‘Time of Your Life’), ‘Well, that’s a big deal.’ Plus we had the Jay Mohr ‘Action’ show, which we were getting drunk on critical acclaim about.”

Herzog told Boomer the morning after the upfront that they were slated for mid-season — and Boomer couldn’t have been happier.

“Frankly, I had been lobbying for a midseason pickup,” Boomer says. “I had the experience on ‘3rd Rock From the Sun’ with it, and just thought it was a great way to do a show. With ‘3rd Rock,’ we were able to get five or six shows in the can before the network even noticed us.”

Adds Regency VP Stephanie Levine: “The scariest thing for us was to have all the episodes (done), yet having to sit back and patiently wait for them to go on the air, and not getting reactions from the people who would matter most, the audience.”

Boomer says the networks spend all their time on shows on the fall schedule.

“That’s a very reactive time,” he says. “You hear things like, ‘Well, the show didn’t do well among 12-14-year-old boys, you’ve got to include a 14-year-old boy,’ and you say, ‘But it’s set at a nunnery.’ But all we had to care about was making the show good.”

“Malcolm” finished its initial order of the pilot and 12 episodes three months before it aired, Boomer says. “There were a lot of notes that came in December and January after we’d finished filming, ‘Can’t you do this?’ Can’t you do that?’ And I said, ‘No, we’re done.’ ”

Equally important, in Boomer’s view, was the fact that, as a midseason launch, “Malcolm” would get Fox’s full promotional muscle behind it, where in fall, “You divide your promotion between 15 other shows.”

By this point, Sandy Grushow had been hired as chairman of entertainment and Herzog had one foot out the door (to be replaced, appropriately enough, by Berman). But when “Malcolm” debuted on Jan. 9, 2000, the pilot that had once been referred to as “Herzog’s folly” drew 22 million viewers and actually improved on its 18-49 “Simpsons” lead-in.

“To Sandy’s credit, he did a fantastic job marketing it,” Herzog says. “We got a lot of people watching it. All’s well that ends well.”

Of all the shows from Fox’s “hot development” that got a fall jump on “Malcolm,” not a single one survived to a second season. (One, “Manchester Prep,” never aired at all.) And the huge success of “Malcolm” — which also had something to do with a bulletproof timeslot between “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” — made midseason launches a strategy everyone wanted to use.

“It became the new conventional wisdom that people were following for no good reason,” Boomer says.

“There’s less stigma to not being on the fall schedule today,” says CBS scheduling guru Kelly Kahl. “It’s a more legitimate and accepted form of launch. You have a much better educated guess bringing something on in midseason than the fall.”