noah hawley - 5 found
noah hawley - 5 found
By Noah Hawley
Eight days. That’s how long the ride lasted. On Thursday, September 23, 2010, at 8 p.m., my second show, My Generation, premiered on ABC. It was cancelled eight days later, on Friday, October 1st. The show, which ABC had spent millions to make and millions more to promote, aired twice. This despite the fact that the network had deemed us their flagship show of the fall season, by which I mean the new show to which they gave first dollar priority in sales and marketing.
Which is why, if you were in LA or New York that summer, you couldn’t escape
the billboards and subway ads. If you went to see a summer blockbuster movie that July, chances are you saw a two minute trailer the network and studio had paid to make for us. A month later, Rolling Stone Magazine threw us a party on the roof of a Sunset Boulevard hotel. The night of the premiere, Warren Littlefield and I rented a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont and threw a premiere party. Over a hundred people came to watch the show and celebrate. Heading up to the launch, the folks at ABC marketing had designed the first interactive iPad app for a television show, and people had their iPads out as they watched.
Halfway into the show, one of my writers showed me a live Google statistic that said My Generation was the #1 Google search for the hour. So as the show ended, we were feeling optimistic about our numbers.
This despite the fact that, for the last two weeks I had been privy to the network’s ratings projections, which, honestly, were pretty soft. Television networks compile “awareness” numbers and “intent to watch” numbers, and our intent to watch was lower than anyone liked. Plus, our time slot was a notorious kill zone, pitting us against four established, returning shows (Big Bang Theory, Bones, Community/30 Rock and Vampire Diaries) with no lead-in to help bring in an audience. So even as we celebrated our premiere, we knew that the odds were stacked against us.
And then the ratings came in. I don’t remember the precise number, but it was in the high ones for the critical demographic, which is a low number (a hit these days gets anything over a 3.5.) But the brass at ABC told us not to worry. They’d expected a number like this, they said, and they were prepared to ride it out and let us build an audience. Seven days later episode two aired, to an even lower number. And the next day we were cancelled.
That’s the TV business. Most shows fail. And as we move from Premiere Week 2012 to Week Two, I’m sure there are a lot of nervous showrunners. It’s almost impossible to launch a hit show these days in our crowded TV landscape, with network audiences shrinking consistently every year. And so, as a showrunner, you try to do the math. How patient is my network? What do they have to replace me with?
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.
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.
Noah Hawley is a novelist (The Good Father) and screenwriter (Lies and Alibis) who created and ran two TV shows for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation). In this exclusive post, Hawley offers an insider’s perspective on television development season:
Technically speaking, Development Season 2012 began on May 21st. That was the first Monday after the upfronts. Now all the new and returning shows are staffed, all the shiny new overalls have been handed out, and for those of you who didn’t get a chair in the game of staffing musical chairs (or who made pilots that didn’t get picked up), it’s time to think about development. But how? What strategy should you take?
Here are two suggestions for how to jump in:
Start taking general meetings
The networks won’t officially open their doors to hear pitches until after Independence Day, but if you plan on pitching a pilot this summer, your agent should already be setting general meetings with producers and studio and network executives. Even if you’ve created and run a show, as I have, it’s never a bad idea to meet new people.
Television producers — from small shingles to big companies like Bruckheimer, Bad Robot, etc. — are always looking for material (books, magazine articles, foreign formats) that they think would make good TV shows. They are also always on the lookout for writers to adapt them. So get yourself out there and make relationships. This way later — if you have an idea, or they find some great material — the door is already open.
My last show, My Generation, started as a Swedish half hour that producer Warren Littlefield and ABC Studios optioned. They brought the format to me. I responded to it and dived in.
Noah Hawley is a novelist (The Good Father) and screenwriter (Lies and Alibis) who created and ran two TV shows for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation). In this exclusive post, Hawley offers an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to have your show selected for a network’s fall schedule.
Yesterday, Hawley broke down the first five of 10 critical things to consider as your race through the next four months until your show is on TV. Here’s the final five, including some crucial career advice as well as thoughts on branding and the freak-outs you can expect to experience.
#6 Don’t be difficult. Don’t argue the notes. Say yes as much as possible so that when it matters, when you’re asked to do something you simply can not do, you have earned the right to say no.
Now you may think that when you “discuss” their notes you’re simply “talking through” them, but what they hear when you debate notes is that you’re difficult. You are proving to be a resistant and confrontational person. My advice? Instead of discussing the notes, simply say “we’ll take a look at that” and move on.
It is absolutely critical that the tone of your relationship with your corporate partners stays positive. You don’t want to be the showrunner they dread talking to, because you need these same corporate partners to go out and fight for your show, championing it in-house throughout the launch and beyond. Don’t be a pushover. That’s not what I’m saying. There’s a difference between being a “yes” person and being a Yes Man. But you have to treat the network and studio as partners whose opinions you desire and respect.
This increases their sense of ownership of the show (which you want). Because, though you created it, the show is not YOUR show. It is a collaboration between you and your corporate partners, and you must make the network and studio feel appreciated, so they will fight for you when it matters. Which brings us to:
#7. Figure out your brand. It’s 2012. Your show isn’t just a story on TV. It’s a multiplatform, international brand, and you are it’s primary sales force. No one knows the show as well as you, the characters, the story lines. So get out there. Ask the studio and network how you can help them sell the show to affiliates and foreign buyers. For example, directly following the upfronts is the international upfronts, where buyers from all over the world come to Los Angeles to watch all the new pilots and decide which to buy for their markets. There will be cocktail parties. If you attend, you will be expected to be the show’s ambassador. Don’t be shy. Shake hands and get to know people. Help convince foreign buyers that your show is perfect for their market. The more foreign sales you have the better your chances for survival.