It’s difficult to imagine in this splintered media environment, that a thing called “Must See TV” could attract 75 million viewers every Thursday night, crush the competition, and own the zeitgeist. But it happened, and it happened with Warren Littlefield at the helm, as NBC President of Entertainment for most of the ‘90s.
The stories behind the scenes rival those seen on screen: How Cheers was pitched as a Miller Lite commercial; how money originally intended for a Bob Hope special funded early Seinfeld episodes; how the core couple of Will & Grace started as secondary characters in a different show. Littlefield, now an independent producer, spoke to dozens of the players, and told the story earlier this year in his book, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV.
With a new fall TV season unfolding, Littlefield looks back at the lessons of that golden era and the television shows everyone was watching. He spoke recently with Noah Hawley, a novelist and TV writer/creator who worked with Littlefield on My Generation. (Stay tuned for Part 2 of their discussion, which looks to the present, the future and the television executive landscape.)
Noah Hawley: Reading the book [Top of the Rock], it was very hard not to go, “those were the days.” The grass is always greener. Now that you are on the other side of the sales process, do you think it would have been easier to do what you do now, back then?
Warren Littlefield: I do, yes. There are obviously more outlets to sell, now. But in our DNA … I guess it started with a lesson learned from Cheers. At the end of its first season, Cheers was the lowest rated series in all of network television. So the question was, “What do you do?” Well, we left it. And Grant Tinker said, prophetically, “Do you have anything better?” And that was a very quick discussion. The answer was, “No, we don’t have anything better!” And he said, “Well, I think this debate is over.”
And what happened was Bill Cosby comes into our universe, steps up to the plate, and delivers nearly 35 million Americans on his opening night. And we’re going up against a dominant Magnum PI on CBS. And not only are we in the game, we are giving them a run for their money in week 1, and in week 2, game over. Well, what does that do? It takes that delightful, fragile Cheers, and all of a sudden, it drives audiences into Thursday night. Thank you, Bill Cosby, for everything you did. You gave us a gateway to say to people, “Hey, stick around. We actually have this really good show to should watch as well.” For the next decade, Cheers becomes one of our highest-rated comedies, and for a decade it’s the pillar Thursday at 9:00 on NBC. What’s the message? Patience rewarded. And that kind of message became a lot of our thinking. Today, the price of failure is high. There is tremendous, tremendous pressure.
And disastrous research in Seinfeld, something that was thrown on in the summer behind Cheers repeats, a few originals. It did OK, not great. Then it goes on Wednesday night up against ABC’s highest-rated comedy, Home Improvement, it gets killed. And yet we believed in it. Seinfeld, of course, goes on to be — after Cheers — the signature show. I think we had these kinds of institutional lessons that you could be patient and be rewarded. And I think it’s very, very hard to find that philosophy out there in the network.
Hawley: With Cheers, you had gotten through the first season. I guess with House, a modern equivalent, they did nine episodes and no one was watching, then they put it on after American Idol and it took off. But most networks wouldn’t let it go a full season, and then move a show that was their lowest-performing show after their highest-performing show. They would give that real estate to someone else.
Littlefield: Yeah, it doesn’t happen a lot. I think some of our greatest successes were things that scared us; that we didn’t always have the pedigree of people who knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t have a lot of hits under their belt. It was the marriage of the right people and the right territory at the right time, and we turned them loose. I think that with some of the best intentions, there is not a lot of turning people loose. (Others) think, “How do we control this?” And creativity is not about controlling. It’s about enabling people to be the best that they can possibly be in a creative universe. And that’s less about control and more about giving up control.
Hawley: When you came to NBC, what did you inherit and how did you change it?
Littlefield:The schedule I inherited was old and trending downward. In the ’80s, our hits of the ’80s were — that’s what happened. Everything has a life cycle. Everything has a time.
Hawley: I don’t mean as much with programming as much as the way things were done at NBC.
Littlefield: My program philosophy was that within a great writer, you could find wonderful ideas that needed to be encouraged and turn them loose. And there could also be some really bad ideas. So try to find, jumping into that sandbox, the right idea. And then it was the quality of people you were in business with: turn them loose so that you were surprised as to what they could do. And I think we created an environment where artists ruled. And we didn’t approach it with, “We have all the great ideas” and we would give those ideas out in some sort of lottery.
Our notion was, “Yeah, we have thoughts. We think we can sometimes help inspire. But honestly, the world of ideas is out there in the creative community. Let’s have them come to us and enjoy the creative experience. We also had a couple of beacons. In comedy, audiences were flocking to Seinfield. And comedy writers were like, “Wow, if that’s the place that puts that show on, I want to be there.” And agents would go, “They don’t have enough needs!” And oftentimes a writer would just look at their agent and go, “They get me. They get who I am.” And I think, more than anything else, if we had that opportunity for a writer to go, “they get me,” don’t drive them away. Guide, nourish, and turn them loose.