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.
Do you see shows on TV now that compare to that?
I think the single-camera equivalent today of the Must See lineup is Modern Family. If you were looking for your tentpole show—NBC doesn't have a tentpole show right now—if you could magically pick one and say, "If I could take anything from any network and it could be the cornerstone of Must See TV on Thursday...," today it would be Modern Family. They have 20 million people watching a week, and what you feel with those characters is a lot closer to what we were presenting back then. That's not taking anything away from NBC's comedies. They're just not as mainstream.
You talk about how the first seasons of Cheers and Seinfeld weren't ratings successes, but eventually they were discovered and took off. NBC still has that culture of letting these shows they believe in and hopefully catch on in time. They've kept Community on air. They've kept Parks and Recreation on air. At what point do you call it quits?
First of all, if an audience just flat-out rejects you. When, after all your advertising and promotion, you're half way through the show and there's massive tune-out, there's nothing you can do. It's over. You tried. You invited them to your party, and they rejected you. That's one thing you have to look at and deal with.
What NBC is finding is that they have some numbers that they're trying to see if they can ignite. The Office was absolutely that. A lot of people at NBC did not believe in that show. They did not get that show. Kevin Reilly was the champion for that, held onto it, and that became the cornerstone for NBC's modern-day Thursday night. They need to find a bigger driver for some of their gems. Cheers didn't get discovered on NBC until we had The Cosby Show. Then Cheers became the cornerstone of that night. Cosby was just a massive powerhouse. Started strong and stayed strong through its entire run, and we were able drive audiences from Cosby, through Family Ties, and into Cheers. Then that really became the DNA for what would ultimately be Must See TV, where audiences could come to expect to find that adult comedy on NBC.
You talked about the decision to put Mad About You on in at 8 pm, leading off what was traditionally considered "family hour," even though it featured scenes in which Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser had sex on a table, for example. Were you conscious of what a big decision that was at the time, and the impact it would have? Now, we have raunchy shows like Whitney airing at 8. Were you aware that you were setting a standard?
I was aware that we were a game-changer. We had gone from a world where households had a handful of choices that they could receive in terms of channels in their homes. That era was over. We were entering into an era where households were having many, many more choices. Fox was very aggressive against us. They saw Cosby aging, and they said, "We're going to go right up against NBC, and pit The Cosby Show against The Simpsons." That really accelerated our decline. They hurt us. I wish that I had developed another family comedy that had the power of The Cosby Show. But I didn't. Cosby was gone, and The Simpsons was kicking our butt. We put A Different World at 8 o'clock, we had a really bad pilot that we put to series called Rhythm and Blues that we put after it, and it was a disaster. But Cheers was in its last year, and I decided to double-run it on Thursday nights. I put repeats on in the 8 o'clock hour, and then I'm putting an original on at 9. They did far better than anyone estimated. That said to me that there was an audience for sophisticated, adult, quality comedy at 8 o'clock.
But did you have trepidation about putting Mad About You there?
Let the kids and the family viewing be over at The Simpsons or Nickelodeon, or anywhere else on the dial where they wanted to go. There's plenty of product available in other places. It seemed to me that the audience was talking to us through those repeats of Cheers that they had an appetite at 8 o'clock to start that ball rolling. So we looked around and we had at that point Mad About You was sitting over at 9:30 on Saturday night. And if you took this 1,000-foot view of NBC on Saturday night, 18-to-49-year-olds would fly over to Saturday night's schedule, swoop in for Mad About You and embrace it, exit, and then come back for SNL. So they were finding it against all odds orphaned on Saturday night. That said to me, "Alright, there's an opportunity here". As we say goodbye to Cheers, maybe it's Mad About You that goes in and kicks off with a more sophisticated and adult and—yes, they did have sex on the kitchen table. They also happened to be married! And they loved each other! It wasn't graphic, it was comedic. I thought this was a thoroughly appropriate, positive message we're programming for adults. It was radical at the time, and I guess in some ways it was a bold move. No one had ever done it before. But it came out of desperation, and it came out of listening to the audience. The audience will tell you things. You just have to be smart enough to open your eyes and see and listen. So we did. That became the Must See television era. Inspired by: "What would do you do when The Simpsons are kicking your butt?"
When you look at TV today, you can see the fingerprints of Seinfeld and Friends everywhere. So it was particularly interesting that, in your book, you say that you don't think either show would get picked up by a network if it was pitched today.
As a producer, I can't pitch a Friends. It has no hook. Unless they met in prison... It needs a much bigger dramatic hook, otherwise the response is, "No, not interested." What we tried to illuminate was great writing, great characters. We were ahead of the curve.
You recalled in the book how wowed you were the first time you watched the pilots for Seinfeld, Friends, ER, and Will and Grace. Now that you had this chance to look back at everything—and I realize this is like asking you to choose your favorite kid—do you have a pilot or a show that you can single out as the strongest?
In my office, one of the few showbiz things I have is the framed research document from the pilot of Seinfeld. It's signed by the cast and by Larry David. That is a reminder, and it says, "The Seinfeld Chronicles: Overall performance weak." It says the audience did recognize Jerry Seinfeld, and they think Jerry Seinfeld is funny, but this show that Jerry Seinfeld was in, and his relationships with his friends... they proceed to just destroy it.
We didn't go forward with Seinfeld because the research was so disastrous. So the fact that we kept that thing alive, ordered four episodes, put them on in the summer, and then it became the wildly inventive and hugely successful show, it was absolutely against all odds. I'm still tickled by that. Every day when I go into my office, I do look at that on the wall, and it makes me smile.
You already mentioned Modern Family. What other TV shows on today do you watch, or think are good?
My DVR is filled with a lot of cable. Modern Family, I love. For many of the years, I think Hugh Laurie and the House character had been brilliant, and I love that. Today, Game of Thrones is "get out of my way, I'm planting myself in front of my television and do not interrupt me because I've got another episode of Game of Thrones to watch." It's sensational. I found myself pissed off at The Killing last year. I was a viewer who found it riveting. I thought the acting talent, the sense of place—it was great. I blame the network as much as anything because they kept promising us that we were going to get the conclusion. They were promising something that they didn't deliver on. I was really pissed off.
You weren't the only one. Did you go back for season two?
I had to come back and see what they would do. I still it a compelling narrative, interesting characters, and I didn't abandon it. But boy, they pushed me. I loved the Smash pilot. I think the cast is outstanding, and I think they're walking a tightrope of a very difficult form to pull off. I root for them to pull it off. I'm glad that NBC is actually sticking with it, and picked it up for another season. It's a very, very difficult task to be able to creatively execute that each and every week. Girls... I found Lena Dunham's new show to be, for me, a little sad. I felt the set-up was sensational. I guess I could relate to that as the parents said to their kid, "You know what? It's time. We're cutting you off." My 27-year-old son said he found it funnier than I did. He found their struggle to get through and navigate the world, he did not find it as sad as I did. I really thought that it had honesty. So I'm gonna see where it goes. I wanted it to be more humorous, and for him it was. It was really interesting: I watched it myself, and I watched him watch it over at home and he was laughing more than I was. I found that really fascinating that he didn't think it nearly as sad.
I find Homeland on Showtime to be absolutely riveting. One of the best dramas on TV. I've watched every season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The last season got just a wonderful kick by Larry going to New York. If you can't get your Seinfeld, it's a lot of fun to still have Curb.
What did you think of the Seinfeld reunion on Curb?
I thought it was delightful. I never wanted Seinfeld to go away. It's just such an entertaining part of my life. It's therapeutic to be able to watch it. It wasn't quite the same. Everybody got a little older. But there was still magic there, you could feel it. It seems like they had a lot of fun.
You just praised the risks NBC is taking with Smash. What do you make of NBC today, and the programming decisions it's making?
When I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to run NBC in the '90s, a lot of pieces were broken. There was a lot of opportunity, which is another way of saying that not much was working. We tried to look at the television landscape and define who we wanted NBC to be. We looked to a path, and that helped us to define where we wanted to go. We separated NBC from some of the other networks. We were the first to do that, and that helped us get a real identity. Once that strategy of who we wanted to be and that brand emerged, you have to execute that on a nightly basis. Once there's an overarching strategy and goal, and a philosophy for who you want to be, then you need to go in and put it against a living, breathing schedule. It's a very rigorous process.
I think that's a process that NBC will and needs to engage in now. And they'll define it for today's world, which is a different competitive landscape than I was. But that will start the process. Then you need some luck. You need some patience. Then you need alchemy. Casting and writing. When Paul Reiser read with Helen Hunt when we were developing Mad About You, it was magical. It was beyond anything. What was on the page was good. It was intriguing. But what happened when the two of them came together was magical. What happened when the cast of Friends—that was a really hot script in the marketplace—but what happened was those cast members who went on to the stage had absolute magic. And love. The same with Will and Grace. You need alchemy. You need luck. You need patience. But you need a core strategy.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.