Who puts together a television network schedule?

Fox launched "The Simpson's" against the highly-rated "Cosby Show," a move that proved successful. See pictures of more children's television shows.
© Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Fox

In 1989, the fledgling Fox network aired the first cartoon sitcom in primetime. "The Simpsons" was an instant hit. But for Fox, Sunday night success wasn't enough. The network executives decided to set their sights on the king of primetime comedy, "The Cosby Show," the highest rated sitcom on television for the past six years. In 1990, Fox moved "The Simpsons" from Sunday night to the 8 p.m. Thursday time slot, in direct competition with Cosby.

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"The Simpsons" didn't come close to beating "The Cosby Show" that first year (although it did win a few prized age groups) but the bold scheduling move was part of an overall marketing strategy. For Fox, the message was, "We're here. We're young. And we're coming after the big boys." Nearly 20 years later, "The Simpsons" is widely recognized as one of the most popular shows in TV history, and some of the credit for its early success belongs to that much-publicized scheduling coup.

The person in charge of putting together a TV network's schedule is the director of network programming. The job goes by many names, including president of TV entertainment, senior vice president for TV programming or vice president of program scheduling. Director of network programming is one of the highest positions in television production and requires a broad range of business, creative, technical and interpersonal skills.

In today's media climate, the director of network programming also needs to be highly adaptable. Never before have there been so many entertainment options for the consumer. To stay relevant with the audience, network programmers are branching out from television into digital content delivery such as the Internet, mobile devices and video on demand.

So what exactly are the job responsibilities of the director of network programming and how do you break into this high-power, high-pressure career? Read on to hear all about it.

Job Description: Director of Network Programming

The director of network programming develops new TV shows, a move that sometimes pays off like the highly rated "The Cosby Show."
The director of network programming develops new TV shows, a move that sometimes pays off like the highly rated "The Cosby Show."
© Alan Singer/CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

To understand the job of a director of network programming, you must first understand that network television is a business like any other. The goal is to make money, not entertain the masses. A television's show success or failure is determined largely by Nielsen ratings. Nielsen ratings tell potential advertisers how many people watch a specific show broken down by age and sex.

Based on these ratings numbers, advertisers can decide which TV program best fits their target audience. This is why there are so many beer and truck commercials during Monday Night Football and so many weight loss and wrinkle cream ads during Lifetime's movie of the week. If the shows on one network consistently get lower ratings than shows on another network, advertisers might decide to take their business elsewhere.

The job of the director of network programming is to gauge constantly shifting and fragmented audience tastes to build a morning, daytime and primetime TV schedule that draws the most viewers possible. That means higher ratings, better advertising sales and more profit for the company.

The director of network programming's job is split into two basic parts: development and scheduling. Development is the process of identifying good show ideas, buying them and investing the money and resources to turn the idea into a highly marketable, successful TV program. Network development specialists assist the director of network programming.

Scheduling is figuring out how to balance all those new ideas with existing shows in a way that entices rather than alienates the audience. If you move a hit show around too much, viewers might lose it. But if a primetime lineup gets too stale, viewers might go elsewhere looking for fresher ideas.

Scheduling is part of a TV network's overall business strategy: to make the most amount of money possible. The network might find that the existing shows aren't pulling in enough young, male viewers (a particular favorite for advertisers). The director of network programming might decide to throw a new bikini-clad reality show into a popular primetime line-up to convince more young male viewers to stick around.

This was the philosophy behind the old tent pole strategy used for years by the big four American TV networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox). With the tent pole strategy, a network introduced new shows in between two confirmed hits, hoping that the hit shows would act as tent poles, pulling up the ratings of the shows before or after them. The biggest ratings success of that strategy was NBC's "Friends," which debuted at 8:30 p.m. Thursday night in between the hits "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld."

The job description of the director of network programming is changing rapidly. TV networks realize that not only are they competing with each other, but with other media delivery platforms, including streaming video available over the Internet and through mobile devices like cell phones and iPods.

In this evolving media universe, the director of network programming must figure out how to best deliver content to the most amount of people while generating the most amount of advertising revenue. This means that TV scheduling is only part of the equation. If a show debuts on Thursday night, it needs to be available for streaming on the network's Web site Friday night, available for download on iTunes Saturday night and available as video on demand by Sunday.

So what kind of person is best qualified to be a director of network programming? Is it better to be a savvy businessperson or a creative visionary? Keep reading to find out more.

Required Skills: Director of Network Programming

The director of network programming plans TV show premieres like this one for "The Starter Wife." Here at the premiere from left, Jeff Wachtel, executive vice president of original programming; Bonnie Hammer, president; and director Jon Avnet.
The director of network programming plans TV show premieres like this one for "The Starter Wife." Here at the premiere from left, Jeff Wachtel, executive vice president of original programming; Bonnie Hammer, president; and director Jon Avnet.
© Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Being a successful director of network programming requires a rare combination of skills as well as the ability to know what makes good TV.

The director of network programming has to analyze the latest data on audience viewing patterns to pinpoint emerging trends before they're played out. They also need to analyze past ratings successes and failures to figure out the best time of year to launch a new show or debut an original movie. They need to screen TV pilots in front of test audiences and know which comments to accept and which to reject.

On the creative side of things, the director of network programming needs to follow popular trends without being afraid to take a risk. It would be easy to look around and try to copy existing hit shows on other networks ("Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You can Dance") or create spin-offs from your own hits ("CSI," "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY"), but sometimes the biggest hits come completely out of left field.

A recent trend for American television networks is to spot hit shows in other countries, mainly England, and repackage them for American audiences. Examples include "American Idol," based on the British hit "Pop Idol," and the American version of the British series "The Office." This approach balances risk-taking with the insurance that the show is already a proven success elsewhere.

The director of network programming needs to see the "big picture" at every development stage and scheduling process. For example, if the comedy development executive comes to her with an idea for a new show, she needs to envision how that show might fit into the schedule two years down the line. That hypothetical schedule might include several other projects that are already in development and that may or may not ever make it on air.

Since network television is a business, everything the director of network programming does must fit within a budget. He doesn't have endless funds to develop dozens of new shows every season. The marketing department, for example, only has a fixed amount of money that it can spend promoting new and existing shows. If you hide a show on Monday nights, it's going to need more promotion than a show that drops in right after the network's biggest hit.

Every decision comes back to money. The director of network programming always has to be asking herself, "How much will this investment generate in future advertising revenue?" If not, she won't last long.

The director of network programming is also the network's public face during press tours and upfronts, when new and existing shows are presented to advertisers. For this reason, directors of network programming need to be public relations pros with a knack for handling press conference questions and delivering catchy sound bytes.

So how does someone become a director of network programming? Can you just watch a lot of TV and look good in a power suit? Can you major in TV business in college? Read on to find out more.

Becoming a Director of Network Programming

Directors of network programming often introduce TV schedules for the season. From left HBO co-president Richard Plepler and President of Programming Michael Lombardo speak at a press conference.
Directors of network programming often introduce TV schedules for the season. From left HBO co-president Richard Plepler and President of Programming Michael Lombardo speak at a press conference.
© Jason Merritt/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The directors of network programming for the big four American TV networks have 20 to 30 years of experience in the business. This is considered the highest rung for jobs in television production. People who are qualified for this kind of job have worked up through the ranks at independent production companies, TV studios and TV networks, gaining valuable experience and insight on the development and scheduling process.

One of the best routes for becoming a director of network programming is to pursue a career in development. This can happen in several different venues. For example, there are smaller, independent television production companies that develop ideas into pilots that are either sold to a TV studio or directly to a TV network. This might be the easiest place to get a production assistant or other entry-level job to get you acquainted with the rules of the game. If you win the confidence of your superiors, maybe they'll ask for your opinion on a script or invite you to some meetings.

On the development career track, you'll hone your skills at identifying a good idea and corralling it through the development process. You'll learn how to balance the creative vision of the show's creator with the current market conditions to create a product that's both entertaining and successful. You'll learn what upper-level network executives want to hear from a pitch and see in a pilot. Most of all, you'll cultivate a solid reputation and a proven track record for developing shows that go on to become hits.

Before becoming the director of network programming, you might spend a few years at a TV network in a specific area of development. At the major networks, there are development jobs specifically for comedy, drama and original programming as well as jobs for daytime, primetime, sports and digital media. The more experience you get in different genres, day parts and media platforms, the more prepared you'll be to oversee them all as the director.

A lot of directors of network programming have experience in the research and affiliate marketing departments of major studios and TV networks. Beyond your ability to spot and develop a fresh idea, you need to prove that you understand ratings and how to maximize advertising revenue through strategic partnerships, network affiliates and across multiple media platforms.

While it's not necessary to earn a specific degree in television business or broadcasting, there are college programs out there that could get you a leg up on internships. Many directors of network programming study communications, while others end up in the field after earning degrees in law, business and marketing. But the only way to really learn how the business works is to land that entry-level job and start getting experience.

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Sources

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