Warren Littlefield was the first NBC president I knew as a TV critic, but not the first NBC president I knew as a TV viewer, and that unfortunately meant he was always playing catch-up in my eyes.
Littlefield had ascended to run the network after the departure of Brandon Tartikoff, who had run the entertainment division during the Peacock’s mid-’80s ascension, and who had such a gift for self-promotion that even a kid like me who didn’t read Daily Variety knew his name and face. (Among other tricks, he liked to play himself on his network’s shows, whether hosting “SNL” or popping into one of my favorite episodes of “Night Court.”) That some of the defining shows of the Tartikoff era were actually the work of other men (predecessor Fred Silverman greenlit and renewed “Hill Street Blues,” while “St. Elsewhere” came from the production company of Tartikoff’s boss Grant Tinker) wasn’t information I was privy to, nor did I know about the diastrous 1983 season where every single new show Tartikoff put on the fall schedule – including gems like “Manimal” and “Mr. Smith” (a sitcom about a talking orangutan) – failed to be renewed. From my living room couch, he was the man responsible for everything I watched on my favorite network.
So when I first interviewed Littlefield as a rookie 22-year-old reporter in 1996, it was hard to feel impressed. Had this guy hung out with ALF? No. Had he come up with the idea for “Miami Vice” by writing “MTV cops” on a cocktail napkin? No.
Then again, the “MTV cops” may be a case of the legend becoming fact. In Littlefield’s new book (written with T.R. Pearson) “Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV,” he says that what actually happened was that Anthony Yerkovich and Michael Mann pitched Tartikoff on “Miami Vice,” and Tartikoff replied, “I get it: MTV cops.”
“Not quite the same thing,” Littlefield writes, “but people don’t always argue with network presidents.”
Beyond the shadow cast by his famous predecessor, there was the confusing hierarchy of NBC in the mid-’90s, when the more boisterous Don Ohlmeyer was installed as Littlefield’s boss – and who, according to Littlefield’s accounts, mostly stood in the way of that era’s big hits (Ohlmeyer famously stormed out of a pilot screening of “ER,” convinced it was going to get destroyed by CBS’ “Chicago Hope”) – and also a sense of institutional complacency during that era.
This was the NBC of “Seinfeld” and “ER” and “Friends,” but also the NBC of “Suddenly Susan,” “Caroline in the City” and “Veronica’s Closet.” It was a period where NBC seemed awash in forgettable sitcoms that ran forever because they had at one point aired next to one of the shows people actually cared about(*), and Littlefield seemed baffled that anyone objected to “Union Square” or “The Single Guy” getting to air after “Friends.”
(*) Paul Simms, whose “NewsRadio” spent its run seemingly bouncing around every night on NBC’s schedule but the hallowed Thursday, once gave an infamous interview in which he described the “Must See TV” line-up as “a double-decker shit sandwich,” and insulted network scheduling chief Preston Beckman. Simms later felt so bad about the thing that he sent a signed copy of the article to Beckman, which Beckman keeps framed in his office.
But the Littlefield era is a classic example of not knowing what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Since Littlefield was replaced by Scott Sassa – who begat Garth Ancier, who begat Jeff Zucker, who begat Kevin Reilly, who begat Ben Silverman, who begat Jeff Gaspin, who begat Robert Greenblatt, who has to clean up the toxic landfill that most of the men in between Littlefield and himself turned NBC into – it’s become easier to recognize what an achievement his tenure was.
In hindsight, and as well-illustrated by the oral history approach of “Top of the Rock,” while Littlefield greenlit a lot of junk – and in many cases gave the junk the best possible timeslots(**) – he consistently did the one thing that his successors all failed to do. He took the successful, sturdy foundation handed to him and built on it with new hits, rather than (as Jeff Zucker repeatedly did) trying to stretch out the pre-existing successes while failing to find their replacements.
(**) Littlefield doesn’t get into it in the book, but some of the bad shows – “Jesse” and “Veronica’s Closet” in particular – wound up on Thursdays because of deals the network cut with producers of hits like “Friends.” They got to keep the big hit, but had to then pair it with lesser works from the same people.
Before we get to the Littlefield era, “Top of the Rock” first looks at the creation of “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show,” two of the biggest hits of the Tartikoff era, which Littlefield worked on in his days in the network’s comedy development division. Littlefield still has good relationships with a lot of the people he worked on, so the voices in each chapter are a diverse, impressive bunch: writers and directors, fellow NBC executives and a lot of the stars. When he gets to “Seinfeld,” for instance, he doesn’t get Larry David, but he does get Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander, and he has half of the “Friends” cast. George Clooney didn’t talk in the “ER” chapter (though knowing Clooney, I’d guess that’s more about scheduling than ego), but Anthony Edwards, Julianna Margulies, Noah Wyle and Eriq La Salle all did.
The “Cheers” chapter introduces legendary director James Burrows, who sets up something of a throughline for the book, as he was there for the start of “Cheers,” “Friends” and “Will & Grace.” The transition from one hit to the next wasn’t always as orderly or easy as it seemed from the outside, but throughout the Tartikoff and Littlefield eras, NBC seemed to have a knack for always finding the right up-and-coming show to replace an outgoing one.
So when Littlefield took over the network, “The Cosby Show” was gone, but “Cheers” was still there to carry the flag, and when Ted Danson decided to walk away, “Seinfeld” had been put in position to succeed it. (***) “ER” came along just as “L.A. Law” was ending. There was a steady stream of success: not only the era-defining Thursday shows, but “Frasier” (which was quickly sent off to colonize a Tuesday sitcom bloc, much to the displeasure of Kelsey Grammer, who gladly recounts his feelings about that and many other things in the “Cheers” and “Frasier” chapters) and “Mad About You” (also banished quickly from Thursday, and to less good fortune than “Frasier” found on another night) “3rd Rock from the Sun,” etc. And while the huge success of the Thursday shows makes them look like safe bets in hindsight, many of them seemed like potential catastrophes in development. Ohlmeyer wasn’t the only person in the industry convinced “Chicago Hope” was going to vanquish “ER.” Nobody knew what to make of “Seinfeld” or “Friends” in their early development. And “Will & Grace” was a show no one was sure America would want to watch after “Ellen” died so quickly after Ellen DeGeneres came out.
(***) Albeit after going through one of the stranger development processes of all time. Among other things: “Seinfeld” was developed as part of NBC’s late-night division because executive Rick Ludwin was its only early champion. It aired a single episode in the summer of 1989, four more the following summer – what Alexander refers to as “The whopping four, the confidence four” – and only 13 the season after that before it finally became a fixture of the lineup.
There were also tweaks to existing shows. Littlefield would have canceled “Law & Order” after its third season if producer Dick Wolf hadn’t consented to add some women to the all-male cast; Wolf agreed, and the show ran for 17 more seasons after they had that discussion, spinning off two other hits (and a couple of misses) along the way.
There are times where “Top of the Rock” becomes too defensive of Littlefield’s success and the credit others received for it. He goes on at length about his many feuds with Ohlmeyer, and about Ohlmeyer’s drinking problem; where the accounts of Grammer’s problems with sobriety are germane to the “Frasier” history, a lot of the Ohlmeyer material reads like score-settling with a boss Littlefield never much liked.
But as Bill Parcells likes to say, you are what your record says you are, and Littlefield’s record at NBC in the ’90s was tremendous. And many of the stories he tells are versions of ones I’ve heard before from other sources. He may be the hero of his own book, as so many authors are, but NBC’s success on his watch was no invention. It was very real, and very powerful, and so far removed from the shabby state of the network today that it’s easy to imagine Bob Greenblatt begging for even a mid-sized success like “3rd Rock,” just to stop the bleeding.
It’s a very entertaining book, particularly in the small details, like La Salle revealing the origin of Peter Benton’s famous karate punch, or the “Friends” creators discussing all the actors who almost got cast – many of whom they were hoping would turn the job down so they could hire Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, etc. And it’s a reminder of just how much NBC(****), and television, has changed from the Must See era.
(****) My biggest complaint about the book is that the title is misleading, in that the “fall” is really only covered in a short chapter at the end dealing with Littlefield being fired. I imagine he has a lot to say about the many failings of Zucker and company, and even if he had to ditch the oral history format for a chapter to do it, it would have been a very interesting read.
When I started covering television, a lot of my fellow critics complained that Littlefield and his fellow NBC executives were too cocky for their own good. But it’s not cockiness if you can actually get the job done, and I’d be willing to put up with some aloofness from my TV suits if they could preside over a sustained run of success through quality the way that Littlefield did.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org