TV exec Warren Littlefield

The former president of NBC entertainment and architect of “Must See TV” analyzes the current need for quality television, as detailed in his new book Top of the Rock.

Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, ER, Cheers, Law & Order, Will & Grace, The Cosby Show, Golden Girls, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air…these are just some of the hit shows that made it to the small screen through the efforts of Warren Littlefield, a former NBC exec, who now runs his own TV production company. During his tenure in several division-leading posts, including entertainment president, the net had a long run at the number one spot and won 168 Emmys. Littlefield gives an insider's account of the risky business decisions and creative passion that made "Must See TV" possible in his book Top of the Rock.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Warren Littlefield to this program. For nearly a decade in the 1990s he was the top man at NBC entertainment, overseeing the network’s must-see lineup of programming that included “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “ER,” “Mad About You,” and so many more shows.

A new book about his time at NBC, and perhaps one of the last great rides of any network TV exec is called “Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV.” Warren Littlefield, good to have you on this program.

Warren Littlefield: It is wonderful to be here. Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Glad to have you. Let me start with the obvious – what happened? I know that what happened didn’t happen on your watch, but as an outsider looking in sometimes you can get even a better perspective. So what’s your sense of what happened to NBC?

I saw the ratings the other day. NBC was fifth. They were behind the three bigs – Fox, ABC, CBS, and –

Littlefield: Univision.

Tavis: Univision.

Littlefield: Univision.

Tavis: And then NBC. So what happened?

Littlefield: Nothing lasts forever. When Peyton Manning said goodbye to Indianapolis, he reminded us that nothing lasts forever, and it was an amazing era for us.

We had America tuned in watching Thursday night. Seventy-five million Americans at the height of our run would be there because they want a shared experience. They wanted to connect, they wanted to laugh, they wanted to be touched by those programs, and then they couldn’t wait to get to the office the next day and be a part of the conversation.

The world changes. Competition – we were in the ’90 in about a 50-channel universe for the average household. Today, 150. So more competition, and an environment that’s just sliced and diced and fractured, and I think that some of the lessons that we learned – respect the audience – maybe some of those things were forgotten.

Tavis: I take your point and I figured your answer might go in that direction, that there are more challenges available now, so many other things beyond TV even to distract us that we didn’t have back in the day.

But that doesn’t excuse the need and the demand for quality television, because those networks that produce quality television still get the eyeballs. So the audience may be more fragmented, but what has that to do with giving us high-quality programming?

Littlefield: Well, the audience does reward you, you’re absolutely right. You won’t get me arguing that point with you, Tavis, because the more we put out there when we respected the audience and gave them great, great entertainment, the more they rewarded us. So for America, Thursday night, one network, one night, for one decade, we were the destination.

That’s what I chose to write about, and we were rewarded by patience. It didn’t start that way. Famously, we had a lot of slow starters.

Tavis: Like?

Littlefield: “Cheers.” At the end of its first season, in all of networks – and of course there were only three networks at the time, but the lowest-rated show on all of network television, “Cheers.”

So we had a question to ask – do we continue? Do we keep our jobs if we continue with the show? Grant Tinker said to us, “Do you have anything better?” and the answer was, “Well, of course not. We don’t have anything better.”

So it stayed, so “Cheers” stayed on Thursday night, but no one was watching NBC. Then a man named Bill Cosby comes on and electrifies Thursday night.

His opening number the very first night, 35 million people tune in, and as Bill turns on the electricity on Thursday, we also get to say to the audience hey, by the way, stick around – we’ve got this thing called “Cheers.” For the next decade, “Cheers” becomes a temple for Thursday night. Patience rewarded.

“Seinfeld,” disastrous test results. They knew Jerry. They just didn’t like the show. So we put “Seinfeld” on. Took us a little while, we were scared at first by those test results.

We put it on; it gets killed opposite “Home Improvement,” absolutely killed. But Jerry and Larry David had these crazy, wonderful voices in their head and we said we have to stick with it. Again, “Cheers” then goes away and who takes over for “Cheers?” “Seinfeld.” Patience rewarded.

So really, it’s a story of not just instant hits and instant success. You have to plant seeds. You have to stand up for the things you believe in.

Tavis: You’ve said a few things now I want to go back and pick apart one at a time, or get you to kind of deconstruct for me. In no particular order, number one, when you say patience rewarded, and you’ve said it a few times, actually, and I take your point, but that doesn’t seem to be the order of today.

There are some shows that are critically acclaimed – “30 Rock” comes to mind, speaking of NBC. There are some shows that have critical acclaim, don’t have a massive audience, and they’ve survived a number of seasons.

But typically, the rule is if you don’t hit it pretty fast – you don’t hit it, you quit it, and that’s kind of how it works.

Littlefield: That’s right.

Tavis: So patience isn’t rewarded in TV anymore. Why is that?

Littlefield: I think the sword of Damocles is hanging over a lot of executives’ heads. My last series was on ABC, a one-hour called “My Generation.” Critics liked it. I was on for two weeks, and that was a tough one.

I didn’t think it should have been Thursday at 8:00, but that’s where they put it. I didn’t make that call. We were in a buzz saw, and there was a sense of oh my God, this isn’t working, and they moved on very quickly.

So having patience, sticking with things, it’s not the easy call to make. The other thing that helps is NBC right now on Thursday nights, if they had “Modern Family,” if they could magically steal it from ABC, they’d be a lot off. “30 Rock” would be doing better with that kind of big hit in front of it.

They don’t have all those weapons yet, they don’t have all that product to really put them in the big numbers game that they used to be in.

Tavis: The second thing you said I want to go back and get – Cosby premiere night, 35 million viewers. The top-rated comedy these days has about 18 million viewers. Is that just that fragmentation you were talking about, or was Cosby that much superior as a program?

Littlefield: Both. I think the point is very well made. Cosby was universal, and Bill’s initial instinct was he wanted to do a one-hour show where he was a limo driver in New York. Tom Warner, Marcy (unintelligible) said, “Bill, you go on stage at night with a cigar and a glass of water, and you talk for two hours about your family, your life as a parent – that’s what we want you to do.”

Thank goodness they said it, and we benefitted. But it was that good a show, and it spoke to such a large audience, so a big hit today is “Modern Family.” Eighteen million viewers watching, that’s a darn good number in this competitive landscape. We had 75 million. We’d scared the competition away.

Tavis: The third thing I want to go back to right quick before we move forward about your Cosby reference, I know this because after all these years it still sticks in my craw, and I’ve had my issues with Mr. Cosby on a number of different fronts, but he’s a great comedian, he’s a comedic genius, one of America’s greatest storytellers ever.

Littlefield: Yes.

Tavis: Yet as you know, and I think you’ll admit this, he got turned down by everybody, including NBC. The first time around, NBC didn’t sign him up immediately. He had to make the rounds to all the networks to get them to buy into this show.

Now if you’re telling me that the idea he was originally pitching is the one you guys turned down, I will take that. The way I’ve heard the story is that “The Cosby Show,” as we saw it, was pitched to all the networks. Everybody turned it down. NBC eventually wised up and gave him an opportunity, but it ain’t like y’all got that the first time around.

Littlefield: Oh, no, we got it. I’m going to tell you the real story, because –

Tavis: Tell me the real – I want to hear this.

Littlefield: – I was sitting on the couch –

Tavis: I want to hear this.

Littlefield: – and I got the pitch.

Tavis: Okay.

Littlefield: Bill was not in the room. Tom Warner, Marcy (unintelligible), and they came in and said, “Here’s what we want to do. We want to do a family comedy starring Bill Cosby, and the premise is this. There’s a war going on in America’s living rooms. It’s between parents and teenage kids. This is the story of a man who refuses to lose that war.”

We went, “That works for us. Let’s work this out.” They wanted a big commitment, and there the negotiation began. As we were in that negotiation – so we said yes. We were in the negotiation and they went, “Hm, maybe we can do better elsewhere.”

They went over to ABC and they said, “Here’s what we got.” ABC didn’t better where we were negotiating. I also in a panic got a phone call from business affairs saying, “Yeah, we’re going to let this go,” and I said, “You’ve got to put more on the table.”

We did. We closed the deal for a pilot – by the way, there were no writers; Tom and Marcy and Bill, but we knew we wanted it – and really, that was the only other place it was exposed.

It was exposed to ABC. They blinked, we closed the deal, the rest was history for NBC.

Tavis: Jonathan, put this picture – put the cover of the book back up, because I want to ask Warren a question that I think I can better illustrate with the cover of the book on the screen.

So Warren, “Cosby’s” a show that’s universal, although it is obviously an African American family. Cosby owns NBC, he owns the landscape, he owns the entire network landscape for all the years basically he’s on the air, and yet that show starring that Black family didn’t spin off much of anything with regard to people of color.

I was around during those years, of course, and I remember the NAACP coming after NBC and ABC and everybody else for not doing enough for diversity. So you look back on your reign – this is not to cast aspersion on you per se – but look back on your reign and juxtapose why I’m seeing all these white faces on the cover of this book in the most multiracial, multiethnic America ever, even in that era, much less now.

We can’t get people of color on television, and strangely, there were more Black folk on television then than there are now.

Littlefield: It’s a good point, and “A Different World” was our spinoff from “The Cosby Show.”

Tavis: I recall that, yeah.

Littlefield: “A Different World” didn’t have the blazing success that “Cosby” had, but it was on for seven seasons and we got a lot of awards and a lot of faces came out of that show and have had great careers.

I would hold up a mirror to what we did with dramatic television far more than our comedy lineup in the must-see years. “Law and Order,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “ER,” those were great roles, very diverse casts, and they were decade-long success stories.

When it came to getting more color in the faces of our comedy lineup, I wish I could tell you that when I said we really need that everyone followed. Just because you’re in a suit and you think you’re the boss, doesn’t mean everyone always listens.

So I accept the criticism. I think it’s fair. But I also think on our dramatic television side we have a pretty good track record.

Tavis: Again, my point was not to hit you –

Littlefield: No, that’s fair.

Tavis: – because my issue is with the whole industry overall.

Littlefield: You’re looking at the landscape –

Tavis: Exactly.

Littlefield: – and I think your point is very, very valid. There’s no reason that there has to be a fringe network that illuminates an urban or a multiethnic experience. We were the young adult urban network. That’s where we lived. I wish we had a better track record on our comedy side.

Tavis: That was then, this is now. So now this country is even more multicultural, more multiracial, more multiethnic. We got a Black man sitting in the Oval Office. In some ways it’s easier to be president of the United States as a Black man – think about this – easier to be president of the United States as a Black man than it is to get a TV pilot greenlit in this town. What do you make of that, even after all these years of your success at NBC?

Littlefield: It’s crazy. Absolutely on no level does it make any sense. I think television history illuminates for us that there are universal experiences, and there’s no reason why there can’t be a lot more diverse comedy on network television that is something for all audiences.

There’s a universal appeal to “Modern Family,” so yes, that’s great that there is a little diversity in that show. There’s not a lot. There’s just room for a lot more.

It’s crazy. I continue to put those ideas together, go out into the marketplace and present those to networks. It’s foolish from a business perspective. You’re in broadcasting. You still want – your goal is a minimum of 10 million people to watch. Guess what? What do those eyeballs look like?

Tavis: Well, as you know, I say all the time it’s much less these days broadcasting and more narrowcasting, but I digress on that point. So many great shows on the cover of this book.

“Law and Order -” what do you make of the enduring nature of this particular series and all the spinoffs that have come from it, to say nothing of all the copycat shows on all the other networks.

What is it about that thing, that frame, that formula, that has allowed this show and others like it now to just – all over the airwaves?

Littlefield: Crime and punishment. (Laughter) Pretty classic, right?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Littlefield: We remember that book, and that’s what Dick Wolf was really pitching. By the way, he made the pilot of “Law and Order” for CBS. They hated it. He was going to lose the rights, lose the actors, lose everything, and we sat in a screening room and we looked at the “Law and Order” pilot and we said, “It’s better than anything we have.”

It felt real, and it was a fascinating notion, and today it’s kind of bizarre – why would that be so innovative? Crime and punishment. No one had ever approached from the cop investigation through the legal process. No one had ever done that with an hour format and had episodic conclusion, episodic satisfaction – a beginning, a middle and an end.

We said yes, and it went on, it was a slow starter. Interestingly, the more audiences watched it, the more they went, “Oh, I get it – I get what this is, it’s not just a detective, it’s not just cops. Here’s how it works.”

Dick Wolf came in, we were a number of years into the show, and Dick Wolf comes in and says, “Okay, I’m going to pitch a new show. It’s called ‘Sex Crimes.'” I’m like, “Okay, you have my attention.”

He laid out what ultimately would become “Law and Order: SVU.” What I said to him is, “Dick, I can’t get any advertisers with a show called ‘Sex Crimes.’ I think the ‘Law and Order’ brand is so strong now that really, the only way we can do it as broadcasters is develop it through the ‘Law and Order’ brand,” and thus became the procedural spinoff, and I apologize, Tavis, for all that stuff out there, but the “C.S.I.s” and all that, it’s become a staple of a lot of television.

Tavis: No, we won’t blame you for that. A lot of people love these shows, so you can thank Warren Littlefield for starting this genre.

You mentioned advertising a moment ago. Not long ago, Matthew Weiner from “Mad Men.”

Littlefield: Sure.

Tavis: So Matthew was here on this set some weeks back, when “Mad Men” came back after the long hiatus. You’ll recall, of course, he was in a famous dispute with the network about wanting to cut a little bit of time out of the show to make room for more money. More money, more money, more money.

We had his take on this, and thankfully for those fans of us of “Mad Men,” Matthew won that fight and it is what it is. But what do you make now of the way that producers are being squeezed now – again, Matthew most famous in terms of pushing back – what do you make of this effort to get more money, more commercials, out of these shows?

Littlefield: Well, in the network world, that’s how they make their money. Network audiences are not what they used to be. There’s tremendous, tremendous pressure to get at least 10 million people watching a show and hold on to that.

Also to own the show throughout all platforms all over the world. That’s how they make their money. Back in my day at NBC in the ’90s, this product was worth so much throughout the world that everyone was making a lot of money. There was a lot of pad to that. So there’s pressure on the network to succeed, and yet the producer also has a creative vision and they must fight for it.

I think good things, and that’s what I try and illuminate in the book. Good things come out of battles, real battles between creators and suits, and the public today has more and more choices because of it.

Tavis: I’ve always been – not to cast aspersion on you, but I’ve always been fascinated by how it is and why it is the guys in the suits, who tend to look the same, think they have their finger on the pulse of what is Americana anyway.

Obviously, you made some good choices down through the years, but I raise that to ask what it is that you’re looking for when you were in the day being pitched something? What gave you a sense that it would work, could work? What was the thing you were always looking for in these pitch sessions?

Littlefield: First of all, in the life of a network president, sometimes you think you’re just a firefighter with an enormous hose, and you’re just trying to put fires out. Someone wants to quit, someone wants more money, some storyline broadcast standards says you cannot do that on television. “Law and Order,” pedophile priests.

So you’re always dealing with fires, and in fact you can put in a 16-hour day where all you’re doing is being reactive. At the end of that day, you’re not doing your job. You must be in a world of ideas and find new material.

I would take literally three seconds, close my eyes, and imagine that a scalpel went right down the center of my body, and as I sat and listened to an idea unfold in front of me, Tavis, I just thought of being completely exposed.

What did I feel as a storyteller said, “Let me tell you about the relationship between this mother-daughter, this father-son. Let me tell you about this head of a household,” and how my body reacted. Was I leaning forward? Was my pulse pounding? Was I laughing?

I tried to have all my receptors just being in that moment, and how did I feel? Because I always thought that that ultimately, if everyone did a thousand things correctly, that’s ultimately what the product, the finished product, was going to feel like. You try and stay with that gut impression, and for me, more often than not, it worked.

Tavis: I want to go inside the book right quick. It’s fascinating, the way that you chose to lay the book out. I’ll let you explain why you chose to do that and what, in fact, that is.

Littlefield: Well, first of all, I went out and I interviewed over 50 people. Jack Welch, head of GE, Jerry Seinfeld, the entire cast of “Will and Grace.” The more I sat down with people, I said, “I’m going to rewrite Jerry Seinfeld and put it in my words? I’m going to rewrite Jack? I’m going to rewrite the creators of ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld?’ I don’t think so.”

I wanted their voices to come loud and clear, and every interview I went into, I said I was the boss. I knew everything. Every single interview, I was surprised because I didn’t know that. I didn’t know how things unfolded. They kept it from me.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s why you’re the president. That’s what they’re supposed to do, keep things from you.

Littlefield: Yeah. It worked.

Tavis: Yeah, it worked. Before I let you go, this is not covered in the text and I want to be honest about that – it’s not covered in the book. But since I just note that Mr. Letterman re-upped the other day for a couple more years, what do you have to say, what do you make of the fact that all these years later, after that big decision, Leno and Letterman are still both going strong?

Littlefield: Well, it’s been a win for everybody. When I was at NBC, I had to face Johnny Carson saying, “Thank you and goodnight” after 30 years. That was a tough one.

I managed a lot of change, and I think I learned to embrace change, but that was big. I made a bet on Jay Leno. Ultimately, what we wanted the win-win was how do we keep Leno, how do we keep Letterman? Impossible. The competition basically said, “Come on over. They can only pick one.”

David Letterman’s representation made the deal enormously difficult. My job was to make sure we had choices. I voted for Jay, and probably now, a few billion dollars later, that was a pretty good call.

But Dave has made a great living and so has CBS, and Comedy Central with Jon Stewart and Colbert, they make a great living. Again, it’s an age of choice, and in an age of choice, there are a lot of people out there who all can do well.

Tavis: This is the guy who made a bunch of important decisions that helped define many of our lives as we grew up watching television. His name is Warren Littlefield, the former NBC president of entertainment. His new text is called “Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV.”

Remember that slogan, love that slogan. Warren, good to have you on.

Littlefield: Tavis, it was great.

Tavis: Congrats on the book.

Littlefield: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm