TV's "Masked Scheduler" Reflects on 35-Year Career: Nabbing Aniston for 'Friends,' Toying with Dick Wolf

Preston Beckman - H 2015
Courtesy of FOX

Preston Beckman - H 2015

Preston Beckman, the newly retired mastermind behind NBC's Must See TV and Fox's 'Idol' chapter, spills secrets about meeting with Rupert Murdoch and joking with pushy producers: "I can't worry about you."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On Aug. 28, Fox Networks Group's senior strategist retired after a 35-year career as one of television's top schedulers. He oversaw everything from NBC's Must See TV era to Fox's American Idol chapter. On his final day on the job, Preston Beckman, 65, known in social media circles as The Masked Scheduler, shared tales from three and a half decades in the TV trenches.

Securing America's favorite Friend …

"When we picked up Friends, Jennifer Aniston was in second position. She was on a CBS comedy, Muddling Through, and they had six episodes of it. We heard that they were putting the show on Saturday nights while we were in a current meeting. I remember [NBC entertainment chief] Warren Littlefield turns to me and said, 'Kill it!' So I did. The first one or two weeks that it was on, I put original Danielle Steel movies against it. We wanted to make sure they weren't going to pick up more episodes just to be spiteful."

Having fun with Dick Wolf …

"Dick Wolf was always great. He'd call me all the time, complaining about the lead-in for Law & Order. I'd tell him, 'This show does not need a lead-in.' I'd threaten that we were going to do Test Pattern Wednesday and just put a test pattern on for an hour in front of his show."

Doing right by Tiffani Amber Thiessen

We used to run Monday movies at NBC, and we had one with Tiffani Amber Thiessen, who at that point was on 90210 on Fox. About a week or so before the movie [Sweet Dreams] was going to air, Fox announced it would to run an original episode of 90210 on a Monday night against it — they were typically Wednesday or Thursday back then. So our head of movies and minis, Lindy DeKoven, calls me up, out of her mind: 'Tiffani's calling me. She's very upset. You've got to do something about this.' I said, 'I don't program Fox!' She said, 'You've gotta call them.' So I called Fox's head of scheduling and said, 'It would be really great if you could consider not doing this.' I'm sure he hung up the phone and just laughed. About a half-hour later, he called me back and said he couldn't do it. So I very calmly said to him, 'One day I'm going to have to do something to retaliate.' Then I called Lindy, and said, 'You have my word, I'll nail them.'

So that summer, we heard Fox was going to do an original scripted series. We had a movie package from Universal, which included Backdraft — it'd never been on TV, so I knew it would be huge for us. I waited until Fox had spent all their money on print ads and billboards for their show, and then we announced that we'd be putting Backdraft on against it. We killed the show. I called Lindy and I said, 'See, I keep my word.'

Toying with Idol fears at Fox …

"Every year, everybody thought we were going to move Idol. Every year. Now, we weren't going to do it, but I liked to play the game just to aggravate people. I'd say to people here, 'You may want to drop hints to your friends that this is year that we were going to do it.' But we didn't do it for the longest time. Each December, Warren would put together a party with people who worked together in the '90s. One year, when Kevin Reilly was over at NBC, he ripped into me: 'You play this game every year! I know you're moving it this year!' I just smiled and said, 'Tune in tomorrow.' The next morning, we announced that Idol would be on Tuesday/Wednesday, as it was every year."

Meeting with Rupert Murdoch …

"It was always fun to have Rupert [in the scheduling room]. He had a point of view. We didn't necessarily agree with him, but he'd put his schedule up. He'd talk about the shows he liked and didn't like, and he had a very populist point of view. Then we'd explain to him why we were going to do what we were going to do."

Telling off pushy producers …

I got a call from the Bright, Kauffman and Crane people [the Friends producing team]. 'They'd like to take you to lunch.' I tried hard not to fraternize with the showrunners for obvious reasons, but you can't say no. Then it was, 'They can't have lunch with you, but can you come up to their offices?' So I go up there, and I think it was Marta Kauffman who said, 'We've heard that you're moving [our shows] Jesse and Veronica's Closet off of Thursdays, and we really don't want you to do that.' Now, I really wasn't going to, so I don't know where they heard that — and because I knew I wasn't going to, I just looked at them, and I'm not making this up, I said, 'I have two jobs at NBC: to put food on my family's table and the tables of everyone else at NBC and to send my kids to college and everybody else at NBC's kids to college.' And then I said, 'You can send your kids to college, your grandchildren to college, your great-grandchildren and the whole state of Idaho to college. I can't worry about you.' "