Don’t get me wrong: I like this show. But the primary problem with NBC’s expensive but struggling Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip isn’t the Aaron Sorkin (right) inside-the-bubble flourishes, or the smarty-pants staccato scripts, or the high-priced/high-profile cast. It’s the truly awful scheduling. Granted, ABC last spring threw that monkey wrench into NBC’s plans to air Studio 60 on Thursday nights when Grey’s Anatomy was moved there (instead of Monday nights). But Monday nights are a lousy time slot for Studio 60 when Sunday night at 10 pm would have been so right. After all, Grey’s Anatomy premiered on March 27, 2005, in the same Sunday slot, and that was a winning strategy. So I don’t understand why NBC didn’t wait to debut Studio 60 in mid-season after football ended. As it stands now, ESPN’s Monday Night Football is eating into its audience. And it can’t move to Sunday until it can replace NBC Sunday Night Football. Of course, others might argue that Studio 60‘s woes go deeper than scheduling, since during premiere week too many Deal Or No Deal viewers turned off the new series within 30 minutes. But it’s obvious that Deal and Studio 60 attract very different demos and a game show was the wrong lead-in. Its first week out, Studio 60 wasn’t even in the Nielsen Top 20, and its second episode following lead-in Heroes attracted even fewer eyeballs. Now NBC is in a quandary: If Studio 60 gets moved to Sunday nights or even stays Monday nights and continues airing shows in order, then newcomers will feel lost. And if the network repeats those earlier shows, then existing fans will get bored. It’s a dilemma I can’t help but think ‘King O’ The Grids’ scheduling guru Preston Beckman would never have let NBC confront.
I’ve written before in LA Weekly about Beckman. There’s no more controversial executive occupying a corporate network job than this guy who brought his “kill and win” style of guerrilla scheduling from NBC to Fox Broadcasting in June 2000 as executive vice president for strategic program planning and research. His so-called genius (only in the lunacy of network television does doing so little often mean so much) was to construct a midseason schedule that spread American Idol and Joe Millionaire over Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to put some heat behind the network’s scripted shows. Idol jump-started That ’70s Show and Bernie Mac and 24 while Joe helped ignite Boston Public. The result was that, including the Sunday-night success The Simpsons, Fox solidly won four nights. And that’s when NBC’s nightmares began, falling eventually to 4th place. Conan O’Brien fans may recognize Beckman’s name from his Late Night comedy bits. The Parents Television Council says Beckman singlehandedly dismantled the 8 p.m. “Family Hour” by scheduling adult series like Friends and Mad About You in the sacrosanct time slot. And Just Shoot Me! viewers should recall a former mental patient named Preston Beckman in the 1997 “My Dinner With Woody” episode — which was executive producer Steven Levitan’s way of getting back at the NBC scheduling guru for not just hating the show’s pilot but also giving it the Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. time slot, which was then NBC’s equivalent of dead air.
But was Bob Wright outFoxed? Beckman was former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield’s Mini-Me (although some saw it as the other way around, saying Beckman talked Littlefield into that one-time disastrous schedule of 18 sitcoms over four nights). Both red-headed, both bearded, both “not one of those TV guys” (that is, Les Moonves, Ted Harbert and Jon Feltheimer who played golf together at the Riviera), they were an inseparable team. Until the day they talked themselves into thinking they could actually replace then NBC West Coast head Don Ohlmeyer. Littlefield was pushed out not long after the attempted palace coup. Ohlmeyer, too, left. Replacement Scott Sassa, asked by a friend how long before Beckman would be fired, said, ‘Even I have to have my assholes.’” Beckman left NBC when his contract ran out in June 2000. Some say he was pushed before he jumped. But it’s sure looking like a mistake to lose him now that, year after year, NBC’s primetime fortunes have sunk lower and lower.