The entertainment world lost other comedy star yesterday, this one far too young and soon. Bob Saget, just 65, was found dead in an Orlando hotel room hours after he did a stand-up act. For who was arguably the quintessential sitcom dad for Gen Xers (and even fringe boomers like myself who couldn’t srop binge watching FULLER HOUSE during the initial days of the pandemic), this one hurts.
As I saw the trove of tributes coming in from his co-stars and friends, it was genuinely acknowledged that he was a nice guy, and clearly the original FULL HOUSE has been successful enough in its ubiquitous rerun presence to have made him a wealthy man. But I was involved in what I’ve learned was one of the few decisions he regretted, and amidst current struggles I’m reminded of the faith I once had that he did not, and I am trying like heck to draw from it.
The first time I rebooted my career was when MTM Entertainment took a chance on me to head up their research department, marking a return to my passion of finding truth amidst numbers and trends, The MTM I joined was a shell of the creative cradle that changed television forever during its 1970s heyday. It was attempting to rebuild itself via a unique strategy of acquiring rights to network primetime series which were not already controlled by studios. At the time I joined the company, the top such poriority was AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS.
AFHV itself is a study in resillience. Originally commissioned by ABC as a low-cost special, its initial success spawned a series in early 1990. Its original episodes performed extremely well, very competitive with another Sunday night show with a similar history that you may have heard of–THE SIMPSONS. Reruns also performed relatively well too. It quickly built up over 100 half-hour episodes that could be sold to stations. I designed what I thought was a masterful sales pitch that highlighted these points. We also learned from focus groups that people laughed even harder when the top clips in each episode were reshown just before the big audience vote at the end, further proving that the more times you can see a suburban dad fall off a ladder the funnier it becomes.
But we faced a marketplace that was awash in reruns of scripted situation comedies with strong cast and writer credits and the power of studio marketing behind them. They touted upscale demographics which, frankly, AFHV did not have. The consensus among Hollywood agencies is that the show wouldn’t find many buyers and wouldn’t have much chance for success.
Bob Saget and his representatives heard that. As the host for these early episodes, he had the contractual option to participate in the show’s rerun rights in perpetuity or accept a one-time buyout fee in exchange. As I recall, his initial buyout offer was $50,000. He didn’t spend much time haggling, so I suspect the final number was in that range. He didn’t believe the show had an afterlife. I and my colleagues were determined to prove him wrong.
The most impactful result of his decision was that MTM couldn’t use his face in the marketing of the series. As he was the only recognizable face on the show, that was indeed a challenge. We plastered the damn logo over every inch of our NATPE booth but had little else to sell off besides our numbers and our faith. We couldn’t sell the show in New York, usually the bellweather of whether a show had market value. But we did find a buyer in Los Angeles, which had one additional buyer at the time. We were all set to put our eggs in that basket, when we then got an interesting call from a station in Atlanta.
WTBS, as TBS was known then, was a superstation whose signal was carried in almost every home in the U.S. Its schedule was heavily driven by sports, particularly the Atlanta Braves that Ted Turner owned, and older movies and sitcom reruns that were deemed a lesser priority by larger, urban markets. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was among its most consistently high-rated shows and regularly occupied key time slots adjacent to movies and during the frequent Braves rain delays. But WTBS was eager to move out of the black-and-white era as the new millennium approached, and gave us a two-pronged offer. A rate for the Atlanta market only, and a signficantly higher one for non-exclusive national rights should we decide to offer it.
When I was brought into the loop by our top management I showed the focus group tapes that referenced the fact that the more often people saw the same joke the harder they laughed. The room digested it, and then my boss picked up the phone and called our Los Angeles station’s general manager. On speakerphone, he calmly said “I have a chance to sell this show to WTBS in addition to local stations. It will air earlier in the day that you plan to air it. I have what I contend to be conclusive research that because this show does not rely on a script its humor will actually play better by the time you get around to airing it, and we both know an oiverwhelming portion of your audience won’t watch WTBS anyway. Can I have your permission to sell the show to them as well?”
The general manager said “I have trouble buying any new shows from anybody. You took a chance on us. We’ll take a chance on you. Go ahead”.
Upon premiere, the show quickly rose in Los Angeles to a highly competitive #2 in a 7-station market, nearly doubling the station’s time period ratings from a year earlier. And on WTBS, the show improved on the already strong ratings that the Mayberry gang had been doing, and beat its chief competitors at the time such as USA and Lifetime handily. We believed. It worked.
We began to secure new sales around the country. Beacause we were a small company, I was even tasked with turning my research staff into telemarketers to seek sales in smaller cities where direct travel wasn’t cost-effective, with the promise of bonuses if they got orders. I’m proud to say we sold the reruns in Boise and Anchorage, among others, and the ratings stories were just as positive.
We sold additional cycles. It was profitable for its participants within a year of its off-network premiere. We took out numerous trade ads touting all of the success we had in LA, Atlanta, Anchorage and elsewhere. Our masterstroke ad was one where we used a shot of Saget gesticulating so it would look like he was holding te chart with all of our plus signs, and then superimposed the circular AFHV logo strategically over his face. When our legal team questioned our ad, citing the non-usage clause for Saget’s face, we reminded them “He said we can’t use his face. Nothing is in there about his neck, hands and hairline.”.
The ad ran. We sold several new markets off the press lauding our ballsiness for running that image.
All these years later, AFHV is still around, and so am I. It took Saget’s passing to remind me of that lesson at a time I really needed it.
A couple of years after that ad ran, I had a chance meeting with Saget at an industry event and reminded him of his decision and how much I regretted having to use the damn logo so much. He grimaced and said, “You know, I’m not the kind of person who regrets much. I do regret not believing the show could sell. You guys did a helluva job.” I asked him if he’d perhaps consider signing a copy of the ad. He said, “sure, you find it, send it to my agents and I’ll even frame it”,
I’m still looking for that ad. I guess it’s a moot point now. Damn it.
Until next time….