Warren Littlefield was the president of NBC during its "Must-See TV" heyday, when the network featured a killer Thursday night lineup featuring shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and ER (and Boston Common and The Single Guy, but ... never mind). On today's All Things Considered, he talks to NPR's Audie Cornish on what made the NBC Thursday schedule of that era so powerful.
"Audiences want and need a shared viewing experience," he says. "And what Must-See TV was all about was one network, one night, for one decade. And a third of the country would come and watch Must-See TV. And you didn't dare go to work the next day, because if you hadn't watched, you would be left out of the conversation, that water-cooler conversation."
How powerful was Must-See TV back then? Powerful enough, Littlefield says, to offer Jerry Seinfeld $100 million for one more season of Seinfeld, and powerful enough to have put him in a position to refuse.
In his new book, Top Of The Rock: Inside The Rise And Fall Of Must-See TV, Littlefield talks about his experiences at NBC, where he no longer works. He's talking about a business, of course, that has changed a lot. By his own accounting, NBC was profitable to the tune of a billion dollars a year during his tenure. "Today, a successful network is looking at a few hundred million dollars," he says.
Littlefield says that people just don't watch television the same way now, with the increased number of channels and the increased competition for eyeballs. "We lose some of that massive collective experience," he says, "and that will never come back."
Of course, some might argue that massive collective experiences don't hold a candle to a current viewer's ability to select an entire channel that caters to his narrow, particular interests. Littlefield isn't sure. "Two hundred channel choices in most homes certainly gives you the world of choice," he acknowledges. "And so slicing it, dicing it, and offering someone their favorite thing — by the way, if it's not good enough, make it yourself and post it. So we have more choices than ever before."
Nevertheless, Littlefield believes it's not specificity that viewers want most; it's good television. "I think what audiences covet, really, are the high-quality — look at the incredible production of Game Of Thrones," he says. "The production values are magnificent, huge cast, and wonderful storytelling." Nevertheless, what makes a solid return on cable might not make a hit on a network. "In a network world, [Game Of Thrones] still may not survive. Network is still looking for a larger tent, still looking to find something like a Modern Family that appeals to adults and kids, audiences of all ages. That's still, at nearly 20 million people a week, that's a pretty broad-based hit that really far exceeds what's being watched on cable."
But even though broad-based hits are still possible, Littlefield doesn't ever expect network hits at the level of the Must-See TV era to come back, in part because viewers don't see television as something they schedule and seek out, but as something that comes to them: "It's different. Our DVRs make up the schedule of the shows that we're passionate about. You want Jon Stewart? You've got it. Your DVR will give that to you, as opposed to making the destination and the choice to spend that evening with a network."
As powerful as those Must-See TV shows were — and as powerful as Littlefield himself was — he admits there's one area in which he wasn't able to make the progress he would have hoped to make, and that's in the area of greater diversity, particularly in comedies. Audie Cornish points out that after The Cosby Show, the Must-See schedule was awfully white. "I think when you look at the comedies of Must-See TV, you're absolutely right. ER, Homicide: Life On The Street, Law & Order, those dramas absolutely had diversity throughout their casts." But he doesn't disagree that it didn't happen with the comedies. "I had lots of armwrestling battles trying to add some diversity, and in the comedies, I just wasn't as successful. Just because you're the network president doesn't mean you can get everything you want. And I'm far more proud of the diversity in drama in terms of meeting that goal."
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CORNISH: "Friends," "Seinfeld," "ER," the ultimate lineup for NBC television. It was branded as Must See TV. At the time, the network was so flush with cash, they were able to make this offer to the star of their hit comedy.
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: When we went to Jerry Seinfeld and said, Jerry, we love you. The audience loves you. And we want you to come back for yet another year. Well, we put over $100 million on the table just to Jerry. And he was able to say no.
CORNISH: That is crazy.
CORNISH: Warren Littlefield should know. He was the president of NBC Entertainment at the time. He tells this story and others in a new book called "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV."
LITTLEFIELD: At the heart of the great years of Must See TV, we were driving a billion dollars into the bottom line for profitability a year. And today, a successful network is looking at a few hundred million dollars.
CORNISH: Littlefield has left the network but is still in the TV development game. And he sees NBC struggling to recapture that magic of Must See TV.
LITTLEFIELD: Audiences want and need are shared viewing experience. And what Must See TV was all about was one network, one night for one decade. And a third of the country would come and watch Must See TV. And you didn't dare go to work the next day because if you hadn't watched, you would be left out of the conversation, that water cooler conversation, that connection.
CORNISH: And, of course, now, you don't need to do that, right? If someone tells you about a show, you can go, oh, I'll go check my DVR, or I'll go online and watch it all at once.
LITTLEFIELD: Yes. You watch it on your terms when you want to watch it. And then I think the audience still has that need for participation, for a shared experience. Live entertainment events can still bring the nation together, but we lose some of that massive collective experience, and that will never come back. And part of the celebration...
CORNISH: But is that really true? I mean, when I'm watching the Oscars, and everyone is on Twitter talking about it or having a conversation on Facebook about it, I do feel like I'm having a communal experience with the show - in some cases, enjoying it more, you know, because you're having the water cooler conversation at that moment.
LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely. I agree with that. But that's live event television. I think the difference is we did it every single week where a third of the country was watching.
CORNISH: Now, in one part of the book, you have another former CEO of NBC, Bob Wright, and he says it's easy to go narrow, but it's hard to stay broad and attractive. That's why the failure rate is so high, talking about creating programming. And it seems, though, that the opposite is true now. It seems as though narrow programming is the future. Everyone will get to watch their own channel with programming that they want to see.
LITTLEFIELD: Well, 200 channel choices in most homes certainly gives you the world of choice. And so slicing it, dicing it and offering someone their favorite thing - by the way, if it's not good enough, make it yourself and post it. But I think what audiences covet, really, are the high-quality - look at the incredible production of "Game of Thrones," look at what that does.
CORNISH: And that's a program - a fantasy show on HBO.
LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely. And the production values are magnificent, huge cast and wonderful storytelling. Now, in a network world, that still may not survive. Network is still looking for a larger tent, still looking to find something like a "Modern Family" that appeals to adults and kids, audiences of all ages. That's still, at nearly 20 million people a week, that's a pretty broad-based hit that really far exceeds what's being watched on cable.
CORNISH: At the same time, you know, if you look at the numbers this quarter for the networks, ABC lost 21 percent of its average viewing audience. I mean, this is in the last four weeks. NBC also lost percentage. Fox lost 20 percent. It just seems as though with the shift, where the eyeballs are going - people watching it on their own - I'm wondering how you still have that same creative process in development if there's this kind of fleeting paycheck.
LITTLEFIELD: It's smaller and smaller, and it will never be what Must See TV was. But there's...
CORNISH: Could there - but, actually, could there ever be a Must See TV? You can make the greatest programming in the world, but can you ever recreate that kind of draw in this environment?
LITTLEFIELD: Not that size and not that magnitude. It's different. Our DVRs make up the schedule of the shows that we're passionate about. You want Jon Stewart? You've got it. Your DVR will give that to you as opposed to making the destination and the choice to spend that evening with a network.
CORNISH: Warren, I have to ask, I have always wondered how the network that gave us "The Cosby Show" could go on to a period that was so lacking in diversity. And I really enjoyed Must See TV. Like, you know, I watched "Seinfeld." I watched "Friends," all these things. But it felt like a step back in a way in terms of images that you saw on TV culturally.
LITTLEFIELD: I think when you look at the comedies of Must See TV, you're absolutely right. "ER," "Homicide: Life on the Street," "Law & Order," those dramas absolutely had diversity throughout their casts.
CORNISH: It did. And that's why it seemed like possible, but it just was so weird, like the takeaway from, like, the most successful family comedy ever was we're not doing that again. Is that what happened?
LITTLEFIELD: No, not at all. "Cosby's" decline was somewhat accelerated when Fox put "The Simpsons" up against us. And we were in trouble. I had lots of arm-wrestling battles trying to add some diversity, and in the comedies, I just wasn't as successful. Just because you're the network president doesn't mean you can get everything you want. And I'm far more proud of the diversity in drama in terms of meeting that goal.
CORNISH: Well, thank you for answering the question. It was this sort of - as a TV watcher, it's something...
CORNISH: ...I've always wondered.
LITTLEFIELD: Without a doubt. Yes, of course.
CORNISH: Warren Littlefield, he's the former head of entertainment for NBC, and he's currently in charge of The Littlefield Company, a television production firm. Warren, thank you so much for talking with us.
LITTLEFIELD: It's absolutely my pleasure. Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.