For most of the Must-See ‘90s, Warren Littlefield led NBC as President of Entertainment, shepherding now-classic series and grooming a generation of TV executives — executives he’s now pitching to, as an independent producer.
Littlefield, author of Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV, spoke recently with Noah Hawley, a novelist and TV writer/creator who worked with him on My Generation. (See Part 1 of their discussion, looking back at lessons of that golden Must-See era.)
Noah Hawley: And when you left, i.e. when they got rid of you, you were still by far the No. 1 network. You went out on top, right?
Warren Littlefield: Yes. And I’m proud to say that for the next five years, NBC was the No. 1 network. And they still have Law & Order SVU. They lived off the product that we developed and put on and nurtured for quite some time. But ultimately, they fell from grace and they fell hard and deep. It’s really been the sports division with Sunday Night Football and the Olympics. NBC has a new parent company with Comcast, new management with Bob Greenblatt and Ted Harbert. I’m rooting for a brand new day over there. I want to see them succeed. It’s better for the industry if they did.
Hawley: How much longer does Les Moonves have at CBS? In your case, you had a very specific problem which was that there was an executive over you who didn’t really want you around.
Littlefield: Yeah, I wore out my welcome with Don Ohlmeyer. And we clashed. I got worn out, and I was tired of taking the crap. And I’m sure Don felt like, “What do I have to deal with this guy for?”
Hawley: But you also told me that you had a subsequent conversation with, was it, Jack Welch? Who said that it was maybe a mistake that they fired you?
Littlefield: That was actually Bob (Greenblatt). Bob said, “We didn’t know how much we valued you until you were gone.” And that was great to hear. I think it’s fair to say that my contributions to NBC were, each year that it went by when I wasn’t there, I was more appreciated for what I did when I was. And so I like to think of my legacy as the incredible programming that I put on. When I was President, we garnered 168 Emmy Awards, we dominated in the audience, and in profitability. But we also groomed a generation of executives that literally populate the entire television landscape today in network and cable.
Hawley: Yeah, I mean that was the great thing about working together is it was like, “Oh yeah, that guy used to work for me” — like the president of every network.
Littlefield: Yeah, and so it as a wonderful experience with both the product and the people. And Les (Moonves) has had a vision for what he thought CBS should be. He really has been the guiding influence for 15 years at CBS and that has working well for them.
Hawley: Steve McPherson was president of ABC, and when he left, he went to make wine, and I don’t see Jeff Zucker hanging around the industry. What was that impulse for you, that you weren’t done and you still wanted to do this?
Littlefield: Well, I love it. I grew up figuring out ways to get out of school so I could stay home and watch a medium that I loved. And that flame isn’t extinguished. I loved my years in broadcasting, and I think that’s made me a smarter, better producer. When you’re running an entertainment division, you have a hundred plates in the air. When you’re a producer, it’s more like ten. And the depth of that creative experience, getting to work with writers like you, that’s really rewarding for me.
Hawley: It’s really interesting, because when we did My Generation together, when we were in the development process, it felt like, there’s always this dynamic, when you’re dealing with someone who used to run an entire network, I think a lot of the executives these days are always like, well this guy probably thinks he knows better than me, and he’d still be on top if whatever. But the amazing thing when the show got picked up to series, everyone was like, “Well Warren, this guy has the best taste going.” In success, everyone remembers that you were a genius.
Littlefield: Yeah, and I think the hardest thing is when I labor — and it is a labor of love — but when I labor with a project and then turn it into a network, and I feel it’s like, “ta-da!” and I’m excited or I wouldn’t turn it in. The notion that I don’t have any influence over if it gets made, that I don’t make that call, I’m still flabbergasted. I can’t understand it. That’s tough. The power equation, being on the other side of it, is difficult. Humbling. However, when we have something that everyone is championing, the way they did My Gen, the way they loved the material and could not wait to go make it and were excited to put it on. That’s thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. So yeah, that’s why I still do it, and that’s why I’m not in the wine business I guess.
Learn more about Littlefield and Hawley’s latest project, a TV series based on the movie Fargo.