Remembering the NBC “Checkerboard”

The nuttiness of “Marblehead Manor” was on full display every week during the 1987-88 season in a checkerboard ran by the NBC-owned stations. It featured a pre-“Seinfeld” Michael Richards (second left.)

On September 14, 1987, NBC’s owned-and-operated stations decided to launch a bold experiment, airing a different sitcom every weeknight leading in to prime-time. It was a disaster.  

Before streaming, where you can watch what you want when you want – or what day you want, there was a time where local stations did something called “checkerboarding”.

As you know, prime-time has a different show each night. When the FCC forced the three major networks to reduce their prime-time hours to just three hours a night – creating the PrimeTime Access Rule in 1971 as part of the new fin-syn rules passed a year earlier, local ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates received the 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT half-hour time slot back to program locally, so they can run news or “diverse” programming – as affiliates were barred from airing network or off-network programming (reruns) in the hour before prime-time (excluding NFL games) in the fifty largest markets. WGN, WFLD, and WSNS were excluded from the rule because they were independents at the time. 

Of course, most of them did no such thing and bought syndicated programming to fill the time. Many stations used weekly programs in a method known as “checkerboarding”, i.e. a different show seven nights a week. But most were game shows such as Hollywood Squares, The Price Is Right (with Dennis James!), Let’s Make A Deal, Match Game PM, and others but some scripted shows too – from the forgettable (Ozzie’s Girls, Dusty’s Trail, Starlost, Police Surgeon, etc.) to the memorable (The Muppet Show, Sha Na Na.) There was some innovation in the 1972 animated Hanna-Barbera sitcom Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home, but of course, it channeled All In The Family

CBS even adopted the same “checkerboarding” method in 1972 to replace The Merv Griffin Show for its late-night lineup under a variety of names (CBS Late Night Movie, Crimetime After PrimeTime, etc.) to air off-network and first-run dramas and movies, and even off-network sitcoms lasting in one form or another until 1995. 

By the end of the 1970s, stations found it easier (and cheaper) to strip programs five nights a week than to schedule them weekly thanks in part to Group W, whose stations stripped PM/Evening Magazine in prime access to the chagrin of rival syndicators. One of those weekly game shows (Family Feud) became such a big hit, it expanded to five nights a week in 1980, ending the “checkerboard” business. Then came Entertainment Tonight, The People’s Court, Wheel Of Fortune, Jeopardy!, and so on.

Forward to 1986, where “checkerboarding” re-emerged as first-run syndicated sitcoms became numerous and stations such as KTLA Los Angeles, KOCO Oklahoma City, and KCRA Sacramento were having success with them in prime access. So, the NBC-owned stations – WMAQ Chicago, WNBC New York, KNBC Los Angeles, WRC Washington, D.C., and WKYC Cleveland – decided to take on Wheel and Jeopardy! by slotting five different syndicated sitcoms at 7:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m. Chicago time) beginning in September 1987. The belief was they would pull in younger demos than the game shows, who traditionally skewed older. The NBC O&Os even marketed this block as PrimeTime Begins at 7:30 (6:30), about as deceitful as you can get.

And here were the shows as scheduled by the NBC-owned stations: On Monday, you have Marblehead Manor (above, from Paramount) with a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards where the help working in a mansion needs….um, help; Tuesdays saw Suzanne Somers return to television in Lorimar’s She’s The Sheriff as a sheriff in a Nevada town; Wednesday saw M*A*S*H alum Harry Morgan in LBS’/P&G’s You Can’t Take It With You, adapted from the Hart-Kaufmann play; Thursday had MCA TV’s Out Of This World, with Donna Pescow being a mom to a daughter (Maureen Flannigan) who turned out to be half-alien (this show was “specifically picked” for Thursdays as a lead-in for The Cosby Show); and Fridays had MGM’s We Got it Made, a revival of the critically scathed 1983-84 NBC sitcom with Teri Copley (a few months later, You Can’t and We Got It Made swapped nights.)

Premiering on September 14, 1987 the five NBC-owned stations scheduled these shows in this manner every weeknight as did then-CBS O&O WCAU in Philadelphia, who aired the same sitcoms at 7:30 p.m. but on different nights and seen in first-run syndication in most other markets on weekends. Not surprisingly, the shows were panned (“Suzanne Somers returns to television…who cares?”, noted then-Chicago Sun-Times TV critic Daniel Ruth) as after a strong first week, ratings for the checkerboard declined significantly as they did not improve the time-period shares of the shows they replaced compared to the previous year.

In Washington, the sitcoms’ performance were flat from what The Newlywed Game earned during the same period in November 1986. In Detroit, where WXON (now WMYD) used different shows, the October 1987 book showed the checkerboard was actually up in households, but flat in key demos. Chicago’s WMAQ saw declines in key men’s and women’s demos. In L.A., KNBC only gained a share point over the year-ago time period share and was beaten by KTLA’s checkerboard. Obviously, the format ate up promotional dollars and ratings varied show-to-show, night-to-night – the same problems that hurt checkerboarding in the late 1970s, thus the easier to schedule – and cheaper to run – Family Feud and other shows you can run five nights a week (that is, until Wheel and Jeopardy got too expensive.) 

“Out of This World” was one of the NBC Checkerboard shows. It was the most successful, lasting four seasons in syndication. (Bob Booker Productions/NBCUniversal)

In New York and Chicago, the checkboard competed not only with Wheel but the revival of Truth Or Consequences (seen locally on CBS-owned WBBM-TV), a game show even worse than the sitcoms and was canceled after only a month on the air. In January, Truth was replaced on WBBM by ET, where it remains at 6:30 p.m. today as does Wheel.

By early 1988, the “checkboards” were already gone in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, with the sitcoms banished to weekends, or dropped entirely. In April, WMAQ dumped the shows for Hollywood Squares, which itself was dumped from the station by September. By the May 1988 sweeps, the only NBC-owned station left running the checkerboard was WNBC, who managed a measly 7 share. By the end of the season, Marblehead, Made, and With You were all canceled, while Sheriff staggered into a second season before getting axed as Out Of This World lasted three more seasons and whose reruns were stripped for years. Of note, World moved from KNBC’s checkboard to KTLA’s in September 1988. 

The odd part about is none of these five shows weren’t even the worst of the first-run syndicated sitcoms that debuted in 1987. The honor goes to The New Monkees, which lasted all of thirteen weeks as yes, even a half-alien girl who freezes her fingers to stop time and talks to a cube who’s her dad (voiced by Burt Reynolds) wasn’t banal enough. By the end of the 1980s, syndicated sitcoms fell out of favor for first-run action hours, thanks to the success of  Paramount’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, a big-budget syndicated hour who wiped the floor with the new sitcoms in the ratings.  

This experiment is mostly forgotten today, but it proves how more bold and daring TV execs were at the time- even if they did fall flat on their face in a daypart now less important than it was then. Now, NBC is considering giving a whole hour (10 p.m. ET) back to affiliates next year as linear TV continues its decline. But even if it does, one thing you won’t see at 10 is another checkerboard of first-run sitcoms. 

When the prime-time access rule went into affect, Chicago Tribune TV critic Clarence Petersen noted in a November 1971 article: “Revoke the prime-time access rule. It has accomplished nothing anyway. It has not resulted in improved programming from a diversity of creative sources, nor was there ever any good reason to believe it would. It has only lowered the level of mediocrity.” Well, he got his wish – approximately 25 years later, when the rule was finally repealed as the level of mediocrity was lowered even more, no doubt thanks to the 1987 checkerboard attempt – not to mention what would await us later, such as A Current Affair and Hard Copy

The following fall, the same NBC-owned stations and WCAU in Philadelphia filled the slots abandoned by the first-run checkerboard with….Family Feud. Funny how that works. 

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