Monday, December 18, 2017
TV and Media

In new book, former executive Warren Littlefield blames NBC's slump on successor

When a network TV president gets clipped from the job — and most executives have a shelf life shorter than a snowflake on asphalt in a Florida summer — they often head back into producing TV shows or running other media companies or something that brings them back inside the industry's clubby confines. • What they don't often do is write a book about their greatest achievements detailing their old boss' alcoholism and blaming their successors for helping to destroy a multibillion-dollar brand. • But Warren Littlefield seems to be doing a bit of that in his new book, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV.

Littlefield, who was a top executive at NBC as it assembled the most awesome lineup of Thursday comedies ever, was president of entertainment there from 1990 to 1998, shepherding the success of Cheers, Friends, Mad About You, ER, Seinfeld, Law & Order, Will & Grace and Frasier, just to name a few successes.

At its height, NBC's Thursday night — christened "Must See TV" in 1993, one executive said, because "it rhymes" — beat ratings for the three other networks combined. It drew 75 million viewers, generating more revenue for NBC than the other nights of the week combined.

To tell the story, Littlefield created an oral history, weaving together material from 54 different interviews with everyone from Kelsey Grammer, Jerry Seinfeld and Julianna Margulies to ER creator John Wells and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf.

Along the way, Littlefield details how former superior Don Ohlmeyer was an alcoholic bully whose disposition each day could be gauged by how straight he parked his car.

Jeff Zucker, the man who succeeded Littlefield as entertainment president, gets the blame here for failing to continue the success of Must See TV, ultimately championing the move that placed Tonight Show host Jay Leno briefly at 10 p.m. every weeknight — hobbling NBC's new show development and ratings in ways from which it never recovered.

Neither Ohlmeyer nor Zucker was interviewed by Littlefield, and others, such as Bill Cosby and Cheers star Ted Danson, are also AWOL. But as Littlefield began to do his interviews — he says he conducted all the talks personally despite the presence of co-writer T.R. Pearson — he quickly realized it made more sense to turn the book into an oral history.

As Littlefield said in a phone interview: "I'm spending 90 minutes sitting down, you know, a few inches away from Jerry Seinfeld, and I'm recording this interview, and I realize, I'm going to rewrite Jerry's words and his thoughts and just have a couple of quotes. That seems kind of crazy. Why not give them the voice for their words?"

So did you learn how little the boss actually knows about how things happen?

I didn't know (Will & Grace star) Megan Mullally had read for Elaine (on Seinfeld) because they didn't bring her to me. … Essentially (Julianna Margulies) had been on Homicide: Life on the Street and ER. And we said, "Let's let the actor decide." I (asked her), "How did you make that choice?" She goes, "George (Clooney) called me." (Laughter.) She said, "I was so swept up in the experience I'd had doing that pilot and in working with George. … How could I say no to George?" I didn't know that.

Is it fair to criticize Jeff Zucker for the passing of Must See TV when cable television and online technology hit the industry so hard on his watch?

I'm critical of the people who followed me because I think they accelerated it all. … (Airing) The Apprentice Thursday night at 9 o'clock, after Cheers and Seinfeld and Will & Grace? I don't think so. And taking the 10 o'clock scripted dramas and simply blowing it all away for a cheaper Jay Leno show alternative? The eyeballs of the other network executives were dancing with glee as they heard that announcement.

Seems that when you were network president, the best TV shows were also the highest rated. But with cable's rise, that has all changed. Any ideas why?

I'll go back to a little bit of our history. At the end of Season 1 of Cheers, it was the lowest rated show in all of network television. ... So we turn to Bill Cosby; when he came to Thursday night, he just exploded. And once the audience was there, we said, hey, by the way, we also have this other great show. It's called Cheers. Cheers lasted for another 10 years because audiences sampled our network because of Cosby.

How would you solve NBC's woes right now?

If wishes were horses today, NBC would have Modern Family Thursday at 9, right? What they're in need of is their Bill Cosby today; they're in need of a Modern Family to do for that lineup what Bill did for us.

Can a network ever achieve what NBC did again?

I believe America wants and needs the shared experience of television. We far too often see in crises how television brings us together. Now there's blogs, there's tweets, there's all forms of social media and so that hasn't gone away; it's just changed.

Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected]

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