Thursday, August 07, 2014

Ruffled Peacock feathers


Yesterday's discussion of failed pilots led blog reader Todd Everett mentioning the Preview House on Sunset Blvd. where pilots used to be audience tested.  I know it well.  In 1974 during one of my many out-of-work periods as a disc jockey, I worked in the research department of NBC.  This was during pilot season.  I got to see the process firsthand... and cause a major shitstorm that rose to the level of network president.  More about that in a minute.

As Todd noted, a Mr. Magoo cartoon was shown first to get a sense of how lively the audience was.  At the time we were told this was particular cartoon had never been released so audience members were seeing it for the first time.  That's assuming no audience member ever went to the Preview House twice, and based on the sorry batch we showed them that year, I don't know why any of them would ever want to return. 


The pilot I remember most was FRAUD SQUAD starring Frank Sinatra Jr.  This was a spin off of ADAM 12 (produced by Jack Webb) and to this day I believe it was the worst testing show in history. Not only did the audience not like Frank Sinatra Jr. as the head of the LAPD Fraud Squad, they felt he was dishonest,   That's not good for the lead in a crime stopper show.   Others we tested included DOCTOR DOMINGO with Desi Arnaz (trading in Lucy for a talking parrot), the THE BOB CRANE SHOW (Crane goes back to college, coeds beware). NBC was in a big slump and their development slate was a pack of dogs. 

Now the major incident I caused.

One night during this testing period NBC aired a MOW called “A Case of Rape” starring Elizabeth Montgomery. It got huge numbers. So as a goof I wrote an internal memo to the research department recommending NBC do this as a weekly series.  Hey, I was a kid. 

Well, somehow the memo got out and was released to all department heads including the President of the network, Marvin Antonowsky. He was known as the “Mad Programmer”. Probably that incident is how he got his name. Marvin went bat shit. I was summoned to his office to make a formal apology. Wisely, I did not take that opportunity to drop off my spec script.

My tenure at NBC ended a couple of weeks later when I got a disc jockey job in Detroit. And that ended my venture into the corporate world. But who knows? If I didn’t make that faux pas maybe I would have risen up through the ranks. After 40 years I bet I'd be Vice President of Children’s Programming today.

31 comments:

Jeff said...

The book is showing as $2.99 for me

Curt Alliaume said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curt Alliaume said...

Hey, The Bob Crane Show made it to series (although it didn't last long).

Remember, as far as sitcoms go, until the 1980s the sitcom with the most episodes on the network was I Dream of Jeannie.

MikeN said...

Well they did an episode on All in the Family that presented rape for laughs.

Igor said...

Jeff said... The book is showing as $2.99 for me

For me, too.

Katherine @ Grass Stains said...

Unrelated, but great news! Did you see that the Cheers bar set has finally found a home? Yea! http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cheers-bar-finally-finds-a-723417

Anonymous said...

How about "Love That Bob To Death"?

Bradman said...

I'm a victim of coincidence!
When The Gary Gilmore Story aired years ago, I mentioned on the radio the next day that if the ratings were good, NBC wanted to make it a weekly series and call it Little Chair On The Prarie. No drama like your memo caused but it qualified as a snarky little radio quip. I'm okay with that.
Thanks for the laughs each day, Ken! "Peter O'Toole, never better than his role in Supergirl" had me laughing out loud the other morning!

Charles Cavender said...

Sounds a lot like Law And Order: Special Victims Unit.

Ron Rettig said...

I attended a pilot rating at the Preview House in the lat 1960s with a college friend visiting from NY. As I recall it involved pressing buttons for liking and disliking segments as well as a questionnaire. I don't remember what we saw but felt the button pushing detracted from actually enjoying (or not) the actual pilot.
I used to view pilots at home in the late 1950s as my father was with an NBC owned production/syndication unit, California National Productions.

Ellwood P.Dowd said...

Why don't you cut a deal with the 99 Cent stores-to sell your book? It might make the Best Sellers list there.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing the Adam 12 spinoff episode with Jr and a very young and beautiful Sharon Gless a few weeks ago on one of the oldies channels.. He was not credible. She was.

rockgolf said...

Ken: NBC has children's programming???

Jim Backus said...

Had you stayed, you very well could be MR. MAGOO today!

tb said...

We went to the Preview House as a field trip in elementary school. I remember we saw "Vernon's Volunteers" starring Tim Conway. We had two buttons, the 'like' and 'dislike' button. I thought it was pretty good, but it never aired.

Dan Ball said...

This article has me thinking of this from the Simpsons episode, "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPmDiOcDIpU

Potential Friday Question:
Ken, after your two episodes were produced, have you kept up with THE SIMPSONS much since then? If so, what's your insight into the direction the series has taken (especially the last few years)? Are most fans overlooking an important, redeeming factor these days or is FOX too chicken to cancel it?

Mark said...

Ken,

This brings up a question that's been bothering me for a while (I may have mentioned it before): when did NBC get so bad?

I write for a blog where the topics include bad corporate culture and incompetent management. NBC has long been the go-to example.

http://observationalepidemiology.blogspot.com/2013/05/what-zuck-is-wrong-nbc.html

http://observationalepidemiology.blogspot.com/2013/05/tale-of-two-ad-campaigns.html

Since Weigel Broadcasting is our go-to example of a well-run company, the COZI/METV comparison comes up a lot.

I originally assumed Zucker was to blame but post-Zucker NBC is no better and stories like the one in this post have me wondering if the Silverman/Tinker/Tartikoff run was a fluke and Zucker was a reversion to the norm.

Does anyone out there have a theory as to what's wrong with NBC? How far back does the problem go? Sarnoff? The Red and Blue networks?

Walker Brown said...

Do networks even still have people in charge of children's programming? It's a complete joke on the broadcast nets nowadays.

Sgt. Pepper said...

Friday Question:

A baseball question-- Do you find it as annoying as I do that many MLB umpires today fail to remove a bat left by the hitter when there is a play at home? Having a bat laying around is dangerous for the runner coming home and the catcher. Really, how hard is it for the home plate umpire to chuck the bat out of the way before the play at home happens?

media_lush said...

still no .99 cents book working on the link for me

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00GAPE45Q/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00GAPE45Q&linkCode=as2&tag=greatbigradio-20

Johnny Walker said...

Haha. Always getting into trouble Ken :)

Liggie said...

Vaguely remember "The Bob Crane Show", as I was a kid. Only thing I remember was that the set included a freight elevator (not passenger), and the characters using that to get into Bob's apartment. Google turned up that his wife was played by Patricia Harty, whom I recall on a one-season '60s sitcom "The Occasional Wife", that I saw on a Comedy Central predecessor.

Paul Duca said...

Speaking of Liz and Desi...the most unusual property Arnaz attempted to produce after divorcing Lucille Ball and selling her his half of Desilu Productions, was a film based on a novel titled WITHOUT CONSENT. It was about a woman who fell in love with the man who raped her.

Paul Duca said...

Liggie...Harty was married to Will Hutchins, who starred in the 1950's Western SUGARFOOT. Together they played the Bumsteads in a flop 1968 version of BLONDIE, produced by the guys from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and THE MUNSTERS (as such, the Bumsteads lived in the Cleaver's house on the Universal lot).

RCP said...

MikeN said...

"Well they did an episode on All in the Family that presented rape for laughs."

I don't remember that episode being played for laughs, but it wouldn't suprise me if the audience did laugh at inappropriate times; the episode dealing with the aftermath of Edith's death included a scene in which Archie finds one of her slippers and starts to weep - to titters from the audience. I suspect people were uncomfortable with the subject matter/emotions, which is odd coming from a group of adults.

Frank Sinatra, Jr. was pretty believable during his cameo appearance on 'The Sopranos'

jbryant said...

Off topic, but I thought you and many here would like to know (if it hasn't been mentioned already) that Shout Factory is releasing the complete Phil Silvers Show on DVD on November 4th. Here's an article about it: http://www.tvshowsondvd.com/news/Phil-Silvers-AKA-Sergeant-Bilko-The-Complete-Series/20141

Suggested retail price is $129.99, and apparently if you pre-order it (at a discount) from Shout's online store, you'll get it a month early.

unkystan said...

Back in the '70s my girlfriend and I were invited to CBS (in NY) to see a pilot of an "upcoming series" and if we stayed for the whole thing we would get a nice gift (bad sign). There was about 50 others there and we were shown The Dukes of Hazzard spin-off "ENOS". Everybody walked out on it after about 10 minutes! I kid you not! They begged us to stay but we couldn't tolerate any more of it. They thanked us, gave us copies of the LP soundtrack of "1776" and we left. Six months later it was on the schedule!

Anonymous said...

The "Doctor Domingo" pilot did get aired, as an episode of "Ironside." Arnaz's character was a small town doctor and amateur detective; presumably, had this become a series, he would have had a patient die of unnatural causes every week. I would make a joke on how that small town would find itself depopulated soon, but after twelve seasons of "Murder She Wrote" and sixteen (to date) of "Midsomer Murders," the joke would have lost its point.

Domingo was also a specimen of that once common species, the never-before-mentioned and never-again-mentioned best friend of the series lead, in this case Ironside. The episode begins with Ironside coming to Domingo's town for a week-long visit, something we are told he does every year--but this was the seventh year of the show, and we had never seen him do it before, and he did not do it again during the next year, the last of the series. I suppose, though, had "Doctor Domingo" sold, this would have been used as an excuse for an annual crossover. The producers of "Ironside" were fond of crossovers. They did it twice, with "Sarge" (George Kennedy as a policeman turned priest) and "The Bold Ones" (E.G. Marshall and John Saxon as doctors).

Thad said...

The problem with the episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY that's been mentioned is inconsistency of tone. The scenes between Edith and the would-be rapist are played very straight. Later, though, the show shifts into slapstick and broad comedy when Archie and Mike investigate the house and we get silliness like Archie and Mike getting stuck in doorways, trying to go through at the same time.

MikeN said...

Dan Ball, what has changed with the Simpsons?

Kosmo13 said...

>>>> So as a goof I wrote an internal memo to the research department recommending NBC do this as a weekly series. Hey, I was a kid.

At that time, I made the same joke in my TV review column for my high school newspaper. I got NO reaction whatsoever from anybody.