A conversation with Warren Littlefield, who ran NBC's entertainment division from 1993 to 1998
"One network, one night, for one decade." That's how Warren Littlefield describes the magic of Must See TV. Littlefield served as NBC Entertainment President from 1993 to 1998, overseeing the network's rise to the top on the back of a famed Thursday night line-up that included megahits Cheers, Frasier, Mad About You, Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and ER. He recounts the often-troubled creations and ultimately fruitful runs of these series in his new book, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, co-authored by T.R. Pearson. It's an oral history in the vein of Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's Live From New York, featuring interviews with the major NBC players including Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane, legendary director Jimmy Burrows, and talent including Jerry Seinfeld, Helen Hunt, Lisa Kudrow, Julianna Margulies, and Kelsey Grammer.
Littlefield began working at NBC in 1979 and helped shepherd hits like Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, and Cheers to air before becoming president just as Cheers was ending and Seinfeld was beginning. Ahead of Tuesday's release of Top of the Rock, he talks with The Atlantic about Seinfeld's unlikely success, how he may have made TV's 8-o'clock family hour more raunchy, and the current state of NBC.
As a fan of the Must See TV classics, it was a trip to read this book, and to read the interviews with so many huge NBC players.
My intention was to bring readers closer to the product. If you loved any of those shows, then I wanted you to be at the table and have a sense of what it was like to create that iconic content. The politics and the alchemy, the luck, the wisdom, the creativity—everything that went into bringing those programs together.
There are big names who helped out with this book. How hard was it to get these former actors, writers, and producers to help out with the book?
It took me about two and a half years. But this was a passion of putting together, just really seeking out and interviewing people who brought this product to life. I didn't set out to do it as an oral history. Yet the more I was in a room with Marta Kaufman and David Crane, with [Will and Grace creators] Max Mutchnick and David Cohen, when I was in the room with Noah Wyle,—I just said, "I can't talk about their words. I've got to use their words." It was that strong. So I decided that the oral history form would be the best way to go.
Not everyone in the book came off in a positive light. Are you nervous about some people reading this and how they might react?
First and foremost, my goal was to be honest and to tell the truth, to tell the story. Everyone was on the record. Creating things sometimes is difficult. Childbirth is painful. The birth of a successful television show can be painful as well. We told the story with warts and all. We told it with pain. Management said, "What the hell are you doing? Why are you developing Will and Grace?" It's network television, and we have advertisers to answer to. Advertisers are not ready to embrace, at the core of a show, a relationship between a gay man and straight woman. What are you doing? To make matter worse, we're in business with these writers. We own them. They're under a deal to our company. So it's not like you're wasting somebody else's time and money. You're wasting ours. So that story is told in an honest and true way.
How did you change their minds about Will and Grace?
My feeling was that was my job. My job was to find interesting material that would give us a quality television show. That at the end of the day would be television entertainment. As I looked at the world, we lived in a world where I saw that relationship all the time. It was this gap. Television had ignored it. I knew that Max and David had a great feel for that world and those characters. They just needed to be convinced that we would actually go forward with it if they wrote it. I said to them, "If you do a great job, we'll have to." And that's what they did. So then in order to kind of hip-check my management, I made sure that I went to Jimmy Burrows. When Jimmy fell in love with the project, I knew that no one could stand in the way.
It was a pilot. I wanted it to work, but the fact of the matter is that most pilots don't. Yet through the magic of that casting—Debra Messing, Eric McCormack—and what Jimmy was able to bring to it, it all came together. Lo and behold, advertisers said, "Oh, this is a really funny show." That's all they saw. So there was no protest. There was no advertiser boycott. It just went on and continued to carry the torch of what Must See TV stood for.
Are you surprised, especially considering how warmly Will and Grace was embraced, that controversy still stirs up when Glee and other shows tackle the same issues? That was over a decade ago.
I am. We always felt it was appropriate to nod at and applaud Ellen, who kind of broke through when she came out on her show. It was late in the show, it wasn't commercially all that successful, but she did it. So that was something where we thought, "Good on you. You were the first. Now let's see if we can bring our vision and our characters to life." And it's surprising to me sometimes when you think things have changed a lot, that the world around has changed, and you look at the platform that's out there for the Republican candidates and you look at protests over and the reaction from some people to a show like Glee. You go, "Maybe we haven't changed as much as we thought we had."
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The timing of this book's release is interesting. The Thursday night lineup on NBC now has the lowest ratings the night's ever received. Yet the shows that air on it received critical raves and awards attention. Why do you think today's comedy lineup isn't resonating in the same way the Must See TV classics did?
I have to agree with you. There's some really good television, good comedy Thursday night on NBC. They're not as mainstream, as broad, as universal as the classic '90s Must See lineup was. While Friends was about a 20something population and what they were going through, they were also dealing with issues with their family. Those experiences that they were going through—first love, first rejection, first job—so many of the things that they went through, we realized...We actually had a large 50-plus audience watching the show. We thought it was strange. Why would that be? We realized we were all young at one point. Their experiences were actually very universal. Friends played in this territory of being funny, and then also just grabbing your heart. And not afraid of that. It was a comedic soap opera. Not being afraid to have an audience feel something, laugh and cry, was quite extraordinary and quite wonderful.