Television executives are seldom household names, and veteran Preston Beckman is not one of those vaunted few, despite having served as the scheduler-in-chief for NBC throughout its “Must See TV” era and Fox during the golden “American Idol” years. But he’s the reason “Friends” and “Seinfeld” joined forces on the same night, and he’s one of the reasons Fox avoided wearing out “Idol’s" welcome for so long, as he advocated for limiting it to one cycle per year. Having come through the boom times and the bad, Beckman is even more conscious of the plight of the current network scheduler at a time when viewers increasingly are watching TV on their own schedules.
The convenience of TV anywhere, anytime is great for consumers. But this convenience is a real skull-clutcher of a migraine for broadcast networks and anyone else in TV whose business model relies on significant advertising revenue, given that viewers watching on DVR tend to skip ads. But more than 50 percent of TV viewing still takes place live, and networks need to grab as many of those viewers as possible.
Enter the network scheduler.
Beckman, who goes by the nom de plume Masked Scheduler on Twitter, left Fox a few months ago and is now living the retired life, dabbling in consulting work and occasionally having to cook his morning oatmeal on the outside grill because of a malfunctioning stove.
“I vividly remember the beginning of the end,” he says. “It was the morning I woke up in 2005 and read ABC had decided to put episodes of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Lost’ on iTunes the day after air. I was at Fox, and I ran around telling everyone, ‘There’s no strategy here!’ I don’t think there’s a strategy now, either.”
“So of course scheduling still matters,” Beckman continues, unleashing a torrent of examples in years both recent and not-so. (In the “not-so” category: moving NBC’s “Frasier” against then-giant “Roseanne” on ABC, which retaliated with replacing “Roseanne” with the similarly large “Home Improvement.” “Frasier” thrived, while the ABC shows wilted. ”They destroyed two of their shows,” he says with a certain satisfaction.)
Recent Case Studies
Primary among the present-day cases is Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow.” It was the surprise hit of the 2013-14 season, debuting big behind journeyman cop show “Bones.” Beckman says he saw “Sleepy”’s potential early on from the crackling chemistry between the two leads (Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison), pairing it with “Bones” Monday nights precisely because of the shows’ similar dynamics. (“I call them ‘He’s-a-She’s-a’ shows,” he says. “You know, he’s a cop or FBI agent, she’s a genius, or vice versa.”)
That strategy was undone when then-network-head Kevin Reilly moved “Bones” to Friday nights in November 2013 and replaced it with futuristic buddy-cop drama “Almost Human.” “Sleepy” almost immediately started losing viewers, and "Almost Human" didn't last more than 13 episodes.
“I told them, 'You’re going to lose women who like chemistry.' But that’s their problem now,” Beckman says with a laugh.
The other hit of the fall of 2013 was NBC’s James Spader-fronted thriller “The Blacklist,” which put a stop to the river of obituaries for broadcast television for a good month or two. “Blacklist” premiered behind reality juggernaut “The Voice,” though, and industry rubberneckers wondered if it could stand on its own. In the fall of 2014, to use “The Voice” as a launching pad for another drama (the Katherine Heigl bomb “State of Affairs”), NBC opted to move “Blacklist” to its smoking crater of a Thursday, attempting to construct a comedy-free night. Despite a post-Super Bowl episode airing a mere three nights prior, “Blacklist” withered in its new slot.
“It wasn’t just that they moved it -- you’re always going to lose some viewers when you move a show,” Beckman says. “The real problem was, they surrounded it with crap.”
(That "crap" would be panned family drama “The Slap” and televisual wallpaper “Allegiance.”)
Event TV Is Still A Thing
Live viewership may be on the decline, but a big hit can save a struggling network, and building a buzzy night of hits remains Priority One for executives. NBC isn’t alone in not being able to correctly exploit a big audience grabber. Beckman freely admits Fox was never able to truly capitalize on “Idol”’s success, producing only medical drama “House” as a hit during those years. “We never took advantage of those massive ratings,” he acknowledges.
Fox finally has a big fat hit to replace “Idol” in the hip-hop soap “Empire,” but it seems to be facing the same problem it did in the former's heyday. Beckman had already transitioned into a more advisory role by this May, the month when networks decide what shows they’re going to commit to and where they’ll air on the schedule. But he is a little puzzled about the network’s use of its biggest show.
“I find it hard to believe that if Fox had put ‘Scream Queens’ behind ‘Empire’ it would have premiered as low as it did,” Beckman says.
“A lot of success is perception,” he adds. “If it didn’t matter, we’d go into a conference room every May and play Pin the Tail on the Schedule. As long as anyone still watches live TV, scheduling will matter.”