'The Masked Scheduler' talks making hit shows and keeping his integrity

Sunday, December 13, 2015 - 1:09pm

You have probably never heard the name Preston Beckman, but you have probably heard of the series he helped shepherd to success. As the head of NBC’s scheduling during the Must-See TV era and FOX’s during the 2000s, he raised the profile of shows like “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “American Idol” and “24” by strategically choosing when they aired. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, he shared stories from his career in the TV business and his thoughts on some industry issues.

The DVR has completely revolutionized how viewers watch TV series. Over the past three years, adults spent 19 fewer minutes watching live TV on average. While that might not seem like a large decline, combine it with the rise of DVR ratings and it paints a distinct picture of change. However, Beckman asserted that the live-viewing decline hasn’t really affected the network decision-making process.

“The dirty little secret is that to this day, I don’t think (DVRs) change all that much on how we think about cancelling or renewing shows,” Beckman said. “(It’s because) the relative ranking of the shows doesn’t change all that much.”

After years of watching and scheduling series, Beckman has mastered the elements which help in making a hit.

“(The ranking is) the show, the scheduling and the marketing,” he said. “When you look at a show, there are certain (times) where we go, ‘There is a good chance the show’s gonna work, (though) it might not work.’ There are other shows you look at and go, ‘No fucking way.’ You just pissed away millions to make this thing.”

Beckman continued, explaining the variability of scheduling: “You could have a good show or a shitty show and good time period or a shitty time period,” he explained. “Shitty show in a shitty time period: Don’t waste your money. Good show in a shitty time period: You gotta market it. Good show in a good time period: marketing will help, but it’s the scheduling that will drive your audience. Shitty show in a good time period: The scheduling will help, but if the show’s not good, it’s not going to survive.”

At one point in his career, Don Ohlmeyer, who ran the West Coast Division of NBC from 1993 to 1997, asked Beckman to make a list of qualities which were present in hit shows. One of the most important of these qualities was relatability.

“There’s gotta be something with a show that you can connect to. The characters need to be competent; shows based on losers don’t succeed. If it’s a comedy, you need funny characters,” Beckman explained. “In the hands of different people, something can succeed or something can fail.”

Beckman’s former network, FOX, announced last month that they will no longer report Live+Same Day ratings (a series’s ratings including DVR viewing on the airdate) in press releases or in public acknowledgements. Following in the footsteps of HBO and FX, the network is trying to combat lower live ratings in the advent of DVRs. They argue that the Live+3 and Live+7 ratings, which include three and seven days of DVR viewing, respectively, highlight a series’ success better than Live+SD.

“The other networks aren’t going to stop reporting our ratings,” Beckman said. “CBS isn’t going, FOX isn’t acknowledging Live+SD, so I’m not going to give you their numbers. Until Nielsen stops reporting them, all we’re doing by not acknowledging the numbers is letting someone else tell our story.”

This year, CBS gave the post-Super Bowl timeslot to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the first time a late-night series has achieved this feat. It’s another off-kilter choice for the network, which has put on relatively-new reality series and crime dramas after the game in the past. Beckman thought the choice was a little confusing.

“You gotta really think through why you’re using it,” he said. “(CBS is using it to get) exposure to Colbert. People are going to be forced to write about the show. But, do I think that there’s a long-term benefit? No.”

Beckman further outlined how when he was scheduler, he changed the post-Super Bowl spot from attempting to draw viewers to new series to using hit series to squeeze money from advertisers.

“That year (1995) we announced at the upfronts (when week when networks present their schedule to advertisers) there would be an episode of ‘Friends’ after the Super Bowl, and we made a fortune,” he explained. “And because ‘Friends’ was red-hot among younger viewers, the postgame show was the highest-rated ever among (adults) 18-49, because they all stayed around to watch.”

Beckman recalled another example with “Seinfeld.”

“When we went to Jerry (Seinfeld), we actually pitched him the idea of the halftime show. We said, ‘What if we do a 10 or 15 minute of ‘Seinfeld’ during halftime with the payoff being the following Thursday?’” Unfortunately, Seinfeld didn’t take NBC up on their offer.

Every year, broadcast and cable networks launch shows that rely on big-name actors to gain traction. An upcoming example is Jennifer Lopez in “Shades of Blue” on NBC. However, Beckman thinks that might not be the best way to make a popular hit.

“TV makes stars. It’s not like you need stars to succeed on television,” he stated. “They might become a big name, but it’s because (of) the show.” He offered the example of “House.” “Gary Sinise was originally going to be Dr. House and instead, NBC Productions hired Hugh Laurie, who nobody knew. (Laurie) was a comic actor.”

For FOX and NBC Productions, the bet paid off, as the show ran for eight seasons and Laurie received Emmy nominations almost every year of the run.

To get one’s foot in the door of the television business, Beckman recommended a tactic similar to how he started in the early ’80s.

“If you can start out in research, it’s a great foundation,” he said. “It starts you looking outward rather than inward. (In research, you spend) as much time understanding the audience as possible.”

To conclude, Beckman offered one final piece of advice in navigating the gruesome entertainment industry.

“Hold on to your principles. Don’t change all that much. This business can really fuck you over. It can really make you into a huge jerk,” he warned. “I tried to, the best I could, to maintain my integrity and also find people who had values similar to mine.”

You can follow Beckman on Twitter @maskedscheduler and read his writing on the TV industry at revengeofthemaskedscheduler.blogspot.com.