Posted by Jennifer Holt
Warren Littlefield, former President of NBC Entertainment, begins his book with the phone call from Ted Danson announcing his departure from Cheers. This was 1991, when NBC’s Thursday night was known as “A Night of Bests,” and the juggernaut known as “Must See TV” was still a few years out on the horizon. Stringing together more than fifty interviews, Littlefield offers an oral history that runs from Danson’s departure through the end of Seinfeld in 1998. In it, he details the strategic development of NBC’s Thursday night primetime schedule, one of the most successful in history.
“Must See TV” was more than a slogan – it was a brand, developed during a time when The Cosby Show was getting 40 ratings and NBC was in undisputed first place (a spot it has not held since 2004). This was before the advent of studio-owned networks, reality TV, DVRs, and the Internet. At its height, according to Littlefield, Thursday nights on NBC generated more revenue for the network than the other six nights of the week combined.
Littlefield delivers compelling insight into the competitive nature of programming a network, and provides insider anecdotes – including one deep throat-style story about getting a preview of ABC’s Cop Rock delivered to his mailbox at midnight which he also related at CWC’s Law & Order conference. He held a privileged vantage point on just how close failure is always lurking in the TV industry. Discussions about multiple networks passing on Law & Order before NBC got it, and the description of Seinfeld’s disastrous test screenings underscore the improbability (and surprising nature) of success in television, particularly on the scale that NBC achieved in the 1990s.
Although the tone is breezy and the pages turn quickly, Littlefield and his interviewees offer serious perspective on the business of television, addressing everything from ratings, audiences, development, and marketing, to the early years of cable, the role of independent producers, and media conglomeration. There is also significant detail about how labor functioned in a former era of producing scripted programming for television.
Ultimately, this is also a (self-promotional) story of decline, as NBC went from generating over $1 billion in annual profit for GE during the Must-See era, to being valued at $0 and operating at a $600 million annual loss in the recent Comcast deal. Jeff Zucker is the target of much derision by Littlefield and many others, as was Don Ohlmeyer. The decline of the network in recent years, or its “Zuckerization” as Littlefield puts it, is largely blamed on NBC’s failure to respect audiences and creatives, and embrace change. One thing is for sure: it was a long, hard fall. Top of the Rock provides an entertaining and informative snapshot of better days for the network. In the excerpt that follows, we see a colorful description of what it meant to “produce the network” and operate with the “peacock police” in the era of Must See TV.
Other memoirs/network histories of note for further reading:
Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control by Fred Friendly, 1967
Up the Tube by Sally Bedell, 1981
Inside Prime Time by Todd Gitlin, 1983
Three Blind Mice by Ken Auletta, 1991
The Best Seat in the House by Pat Weaver, 1993
Tinker in Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric by Grant Tinker, 1994
The Last Great Ride by Brandon Tartikoff, 1995.
Desperate Networks by Bill Carter, 2006
Season Finale by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton, 2007.
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