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First another note of thanks for taking the time to sign on. Your interest is both humbling and heartwarming. For most of you, this is a transition from our Facebook relationship and for some who never wanted to be part of that platform a new way of connecting. I was thinking today about how saturated we are with challenges - where daily activities and some of the most basic details of life now require conscious decisions. Should I go to the market, should I visit a friend, should I see my children or grandchildren, should I go to my office and on and on it goes. And now in addition to the Covid context we in the US are confronted with decisions about our political future, and in many ways and with no exaggeration, the future of our country. I cannot overstate the sense of shock and sadness that I see in people here as they witness scenes that they would never expect to take place in the US, with armed troops battling their own citizens and with so much anger stoking the conflict and what comes next in a very real sense will be up to each of us.
A while back I wrote a piece that I shared about decision making with some of you on the LinkedIn platform and I was thinking it might be worthwhile to bring it back here. It goes to the heart of decision making and will also for some, tell you a little bit more about me. Hope it’s helpful to you.
I had a chance to kill Friends...Instead it killed me.
As the world takes note and millions continue to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this iconic and insanely successful show my mind wanders back to late May 1994, a few months before it premiered, when I was faced with what at first looked like a relatively minor decision that turned out to be one of the most significant that I would ever make. We had just finished the annual “Up Front” Presentations in NY. CBS was on a 3-year winning streak in Prime Time and our focus was on making it 4. As is always the case we were very aware of what our competitors were doing and were intently listening to the industry buzz…and nothing we were hearing felt all that threatening. NBC had finally retired its perennial time period winner, LA Law from its Thursday night 10pm time slot and we jumped in with David Kelly’s new hospital drama Chicago Hope, the pilot of which had broken every audience testing record. When NBC countered with its new hospital drama, ER we didn’t flinch. This was the year we were going after Thursday night. While they were returning two hit comedies in Seinfeld and Mad About You, they were relying on two new shows to get the audience to 10pm, always a risky play, and one of them was titled Friends.
Pilot season was and is an insane process, but especially so then, when Broadcast Networks were the principal buyers of high-end shows. With everyone chasing the limited supply of the best talent behind and in front of the camera, the deal making and strategizing got both complicated and at times vicious…and the underlying reality was that we’re dealing with the very fragile careers of a lot of talented people in the process of playing this very expensive, high risk game of chance...and chance it is, because as William Goldman famously said about Show Business, “Nobody knows anything”! If we knew what would work, every show would… and the reality is that most everything doesn’t.
So back to our story. Many times, Networks and Producers will cast an actor “in second position”. What that means is that they’re willing to take a chance that the show in first position, to which the actor is contracted, will fail to go forward. Once cancelled, the actor is then free and the “second position” contract becomes primary. After the new shows were announced that May, we, like the rest of our competitors, went through the list of shows that didn’t make the schedule but where we still had options to continue to order new episodes. For us, one of those shows was a comedy titled “Muddling Through” about a single Mom trying to make ends meet. The show hadn’t performed well in its spring trial, but we hadn’t killed it yet. Cast as the eldest daughter was a young actress that we loved named Jennifer Anniston…and this new comedy for NBC, Friends, had cast her in “second position”.
We had a decision to make….If we ordered more episodes at a cost of $3M, even if the show didn’t work, which based on the evidence we already had, was highly likely, we’d be taking her away from Friends, NBC and Warner Bros. the Studio who was producing it. My team, our Studio partners and I went around and around, and as it always does when you have the top job, the decision fell to me. I knew in my head and heart that our show would fail for a host of reasons, despite the very talented folks not named Jennifer Anniston who had worked on it. Ordering more shows would only be about trying to damage a competitor. In Hollywood it has been said, “it’s not whether or not you win, it’s more important that the other guys loses”. Despite that dictum, it went against the grain for me to deprive an actress of a chance for real success just so I could play the game by investing $3M in something I didn’t believe in, all just to hope for, but not guarantee, damage to a competitor. And so, I made my decision and gave her the freedom to be Rachel.
Now if you’ve never heard the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”, I promise this story will help you remember and repeat it. Not only did she become one of America’s biggest stars, and Friends a huge hit, but in the process our Thursday dreams went down the drain. One of the new comedies that NBC had scheduled, did fail, as we had assumed, but Friends was such an obvious hit in the making that NBC began to run it twice, both before and after Seinfeld, then the #1 Comedy on TV. The show and night was off to the races and of course ER and that Clooney fellow did quite well at 10p. With those shows powering their Prime-Time line-up, NBC overtook us, and we were forced to “muddle through” and re-group and rebuild. And oh, by the way, there was another thing that happened…. The Studio for both Friends and ER, Warner Bros was run by Les Moonves, whose dream was to be a Network president… and in June of ’95 his dream came true and he replaced me.
So, what’s the moral of the story? First, let’s focus on how amazing it is that what starts out as a relatively small decision can turn into something truly life altering. Aside from the obvious impact it had for everyone from Jennifer Anniston to Les Moonves and me, shows like Friends have an enormous impact on our culture. Like all well told stories, they have special meaning for the people to whom they’re told, and here people numbering in the hundreds of millions have been touched by this show. But that’s only clear in hindsight. When the decision had to be made there was no way to know what the full consequence would be. Just like so many of the decisions that all of us have to make every day, I made that decision trusting in what I believed was right as well as what I thought was smart.
Clearly things didn’t work out the way I’d planned, yet as I look back on that moment 25 years ago, I’m not sure I’d do much of anything differently. I still don’t think spending $3M on something you don’t believe in is a good investment just because it might harm someone else. I’d rather place my bets on creating positive outcomes every time. More to the point though, making decisions large and small are “gut checks” and I define “gut” as the synthesis of your head and your heart that defines your character. As this story shows, you really can’t be sure which decisions will ultimately prove themselves to have been “The big ones” so it’s important to bring your best to every decision that you have to make. In that moment, 25 years ago, I tried to be true to my own beliefs, the things that I still believe define me. I’ve had my ups and downs but time has taught me that when you’re blessed with a loving family, good health, meaningful work and a few good friends, the rest of the wins and losses take on a different meaning no matter how the outside world might be keeping score. You realize that if anything in your past had changed, especially the things that define you, then you likely would have lost it all. So, Jen, whether you know me or not, we’ll be friends forever.