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‘Top of the Rock’: A look back at the era of Must See TV

Learn about NBC's Must See TV, an era of entertainment programming that produced "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "Friends," "ER" and many others. In "Top of the Rock," former NBC President of Entertainment Warren Littlefield recounts the journey. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

There are precious few success stories that match NBC's Must See TV, an age of entertainment programming that produced such favorites as "Seinfeld," "Cheers," "Friends," "Frasier," "ER" and many others. In "Top of the Rock," former NBC President of Entertainment Warren Littlefield recounts the journey. Here's an excerpt.


One phone call changed everything.

After a decade as Brandon Tartikoff ’s lieutenant at NBC, I’d finally gotten the chance to run the entertainment division on my own. Brandon had taken a job at Paramount Pictures, leaving me as the guy to pick the shows and set the schedule. Credit for NBC’s success would be mine, but so would blame for its failure. At that moment, the latter seemed far more likely than the former.

It was the early nineties, and we were flagging as a network. We were flagging a little as a nation as well. Economic malaise had returned with the beginning of the Gulf War and an accompanying spike in the price of oil. High unemployment and government deficits were putting downward pressure on the advertising marketplace. My timing sucked. We’d had a good run, but our shows were old. In the fall of 1991, The Cosby Show was entering its eighth season. The Golden Girls its seventh. L.A. Law its sixth. Viewership was off for each, and our general audience numbers across the schedule had plunged by double digits in a year’s time. We’d managed to win the May sweeps, but it was the barest of victories. We were neck and neck with CBS and ABC after leading the pack throughout the eighties.

Brandon had timed his departure impeccably. I found myself holding both an exalted new title — NBC Entertainment president — and the bag.

I drew my chief strength and consolation from our top-rated comedy, Cheers. It may have been approaching its eleventh season, but Cheers wasn’t showing its age. Its audience was larger than ever. Cheers had started life in the cellar — it was the seventy-seventh highest-rated show out of seventy-seven at the end of its opening season — but it had become a perennial top ten show and a revenue powerhouse for NBC.

For me, Cheers was a sentimental favorite as well since I’d been associated with it from its inception. I could well remember the pitch for Cheers, conducted over breakfast in the private dining room at NBC in Burbank. Director Jim Burrows with Les and Glen Charles, who would create and executive produce the show, had visited a Boston bar where customers (and their stories) entered through a revolving door. Over scrambled eggs and bacon, they spun out the nearly limitless comic possibilities such a setting would afford. The only sensible response was “Let’s do it! ”

We knew we had a gem from the beginning, even if viewers needed a year or so to catch on. With the premiere of The Cosby Show in 1984 — Cheers’ third season on the air — NBC could boast a Thursday night lineup consisting of Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues. These five shows made for a remarkable evening of television, what we at the network thought of as our “Night of Bests.” NBC may have been floundering generally in the early nineties, but Cheers remained our rock. Its audience was huge and reliable (for both original episodes and repeats) and was divided almost evenly between men and women. That’s rare enough in the TV business to approach unique. Better still, Cheers was a bull’s-eye show for advertisers’ dream demographic, the coveted eighteen- to forty-nine-year-old urban viewer with disposable income. It was also an Emmy magnet of unquestioned quality and pedigree.

Produced on stage 25 on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, Cheers was dependable and trouble-free. Two dozen high-caliber episodes each season. A great stable of series regulars with new ones thrown in for variety from year to year. The show was funny as hell and functioned as the spine of the network. It was a tent pole smack in the middle of Thursday night. Without it, we were sure to wallow and drift. I knew I’d need Cheers and its reliable success if I were to have any hope of turning NBC around, and there was no reason to think I wouldn’t have Cheers to lean on.

Then the call came in.

I was in a meeting in my office at the NBC complex in Burbank when Patty, my assistant, stuck her head in the door.

“Ted Danson is on the phone,” she said.

Professionally, I knew Ted well. Personally, only a little. I’d skied with him once in Colorado, but he rarely phoned me. I decided to step out and take the call at Patty’s desk. I thought Ted might have a cause he wanted me to contribute to or an event he wanted me to attend.

Like most Americans who’d passed a newsstand or checked out at a grocery store in the previous six months, I had a fair idea of what Ted had been up to. During his last hiatus from Cheers, he’d starred opposite Whoopi Goldberg in Made in America, a limp comedy about artificial insemination. In the course of the ten-week shoot in Oakland, Ted and Whoopi had become an unlikely item.

I can’t say I was terribly surprised. This sort of thing happens regularly in the entertainment business. Actors on a movie set often behave like counselors at summer camp, so liaisons and divorces are more the rule than the exception. I was only troubled by the fact that Ted starred in a wildly popular weekly comedy that Whoopi claimed to have never seen. The TV executive in me took wounded offense.

Ted and I exchanged pleasantries, and then he dropped the bomb. “This is my last season on Cheers,” Ted told me. “I’m not coming back.”

I was staggered. I hoped it was a negotiating ploy, but I couldn’t imagine why it would be. Ted was already the highest-paid actor on television at $400,000 an episode.

“I’ve thought about it a lot and discussed it with Whoopi,” Ted told me, “and we think this is what I need to do.”

By this point, panic had set in. I perched on the edge of Patty’s desk and tried to figure out what to say. What to do. How to breathe. “Whoopi thinks I need to find out who Ted is. If I don’t, she says I’ll never grow as a person.”

“I know who Ted is,” I wanted to tell him. “Ted’s the guy who makes $10 million a year starring in one of the highest-rated shows on television. Ted can afford to find out who Ted is in the off-season.” I had the sharp, metallic taste of rank desperation in my mouth.

My mind was racing. I began to wonder what my next career might bring. Back in New Jersey, I’d put myself through college as a teamster truck driver. Maybe they’d take me back?

“I just wanted you to hear it from me,” Ted said. That was him all over. Classy as hell. I couldn’t fault Ted, but I was devastated nonetheless.

Looking back, I can appreciate how pivotal that moment was. NBC’s “Night of Bests” was well behind us, and the phenomenal success of Must See TV was just over the horizon. But I was too shaken and too close to the ground to see any of that at the time. Cheers was suddenly in my rearview mirror. Ahead lay barren road. What would happen next was anybody’s guess.

Fortunately for me — fortunately for us all — what did happen next was television at its very best. From 1993 through 1998, NBC exploded every conventional notion of what a broadcast network could accomplish with a prime-time lineup. On Thursday nights in particular, everybody watched the peacock. We beat the three other networks combined by wide margins. Mad About You. Frasier. Seinfeld. Friends. Will & Grace. ER. At its height, NBC’s Thursday prime-time schedule of Must See shows attracted a staggering seventy-five million viewers and generated more revenue for NBC than the other six nights of the week combined. In today’s fractured entertainment market, NBC averages an anemic audience of less than six million for its Thursday night lineup.

At the time, we hardly understood the magnitude of what we were accomplishing in broadcast television. I’d like to say the remarkable success of Must See TV was the result of impeccable foresight and strategy from me and my team at NBC, but there was a lot of luck and no little alchemy involved as well. At the network, we developed and steered where we could, but our fundamental goal — and my guiding principle as president of entertainment — was to get into business with talented people and let them be talented. It sounds simple enough, but when I look at NBC’s fortunes this past decade, I wonder if it’s not a lesson that needs relearning.

To that end, here’s the story of how we did it, the ultimate insider’s guide to Must See TV. Because our success was a team effort, this is a team history, an intimate account of a golden era in broadcast television told by the people who helped make it happen — the writers, the directors, the producers, the actors, and, yes, the suits like me. Whatever you do, don’t touch that dial.

Excerpted from TOP OF THE ROCK by Warren Littlefield Copyright © 2012 by Warren Littlefield. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.