At the height of its success, NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday night programming drew 75 million Americans to watch what is generally recognized as the greatest prime-time lineup in television history. Behind NBC’s meteoritic success, which included shows like Mad About You, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, ER and Will & Grace, was Warren Littlefield ’74.
As NBC’s President of Entertainment, Littlefield rewrote the rules of conventional television, took chances on groundbreaking programs, and generated billions of dollars in revenue. “When it’s all said and done, it was never a path that had blinking lights to show me the way,” says Littlefield. “I had to rely on my gut and trust the talented writers and producers that I worked with.”
In Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, Littlefield chronicles the behind-the-scenes deals, dramas and decisions that propelled the company’s history-making, six-year ride as the top-rated network. The book, co-authored with T.R. Pearson, includes interviews with 55 “Must See TV” players including Jerry Seinfeld, Kelsey Grammer, Lisa Kudrow, Julianna Margulies, Jack Welch and Dick Wolf.
Under Littlefield’s watch as president, NBC won an amazing 168 Emmy awards. When he joined NBC in December 1979, the network had no comedies ranked among Nielsen’s top 25. Less than two years later, as the captain of the network’s comedy department, Littlefield helped develop award-winning series such as Cheers, The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls and cast Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
What’s your favorite “Must See TV” show?
I’d have to say Will & Grace. It was 1998, and writers Max Mutchnick and David Cohen didn’t think we would put it on air. NBC was nervous. I was told not to develop the concept. But we brought in the best director, Jimmy Burrows, and we had the best writers and the best talent. We found the right people to make it happen, and I’m so proud that I trusted my instincts on that one because it was ground breaking and very successful, too.
How did you learn to follow your gut like that?
When we began working on Seinfeld, ALF was the number one show. That should give you a sense of the tenor of the nation. The pilot of Seinfeld tested so poorly it received the ranking of “Weak.” I still have the test report framed in my office. But we loved the show. We stuck with it, and the audience started to catch on. Eventually it exceeded our expectations. That’s when I really learned to trust my instincts.
How did you know people would respond to a more adult comedy block?
In 1991, The Cosby Show was eclipsed by The Simpsons. I was desperate so I threw Cheers repeats on opposite the Simpsons at 8 p.m. It was the first time that there had been an adult comedy on at 8 p.m. Research estimated that Cheers would do okay, but it ended up doing great. I realized that there’s an audience for adult comedy at 8 p.m., and we acted on that knowledge.
Do you have any regrets from the “Must See TV” era?
I passed on Roseanne. Bad move but without having a signature family comedy, it paved the way for our adult “Must See” line-up.
Littlefield is the President of The Littlefield Company, a television production company in Los Angeles.