Fascinating anecdotes and tidbits — along with an undercurrent of score-settling — dot “Top of the Rock,” Warren Littlefield’s memoir of his run at NBC.
Yet the book carries a more subtle, potentially depressing message, given the friction detailed between the former NBC Entertainment president and two bosses with whom he enjoyed such success, Don Ohlmeyer and the late Brandon Tartikoff.
Strictly in terms of style, “Rock’s” oral-history format — extensively quoting more than 50 execs, producers and stars, who share memories to augment Littlefield’s own — proves a trifle disjointed. A crafted narrative generally offers a better read.
The book also proves as notable for what’s omitted as included. The focus is squarely on primetime — with the subtitle “Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV” — and there’s scant mention of NBC’s post-Johnny Carson latenight succession, arguably the most dramatic aspect of Littlefield’s tenure.
Admittedly, the David Letterman-Jay Leno brouhaha has been chronicled elsewhere, but there’s still a desire to hear from someone at the firestorm’s center, if only because the whole affair had to be such a psychic drain. Nor does this narrow history acknowledge other factors, such as splashy miniseries, which contributed to the network’s dominance.
Setting those oversights aside, what stands out — more than broadsides directed at Ohlmeyer and former NBC chief Jeff Zucker, who is charged with frittering away what the network painstakingly built — is the tension and acrimony during Littlefield’s tenure.
Most of this won’t surprise those who lived through the period and remember NBC’s colorful mix of personalities, and Littlefield has free rein to provide his version, since Ohlmeyer — who wasn’t interviewed for the book — isn’t commenting thus far.
A recurring thread hinges on Ohlmeyer hating shows that worked, which seems to downplay him giving the go-ahead to schedule them. Littlefield discusses battles over series like “ER,” “The West Wing” and especially “Will and Grace,” saying Ohlmeyer thought the country wasn’t ready for a gay leading character “because he wasn’t ready for it.”
Littlefield also addresses their regular blow-ups, writing at one stage, “Every conversation would escalate until we got to the ‘don’t bother coming back’ part.” Another time, he recalls telling Ohlmeyer off — calling him a “big fucking bully” — before admitting, “It was childish and petty and just the sort of thing that was growing all too frequent between us.”
Descriptions of Tartikoff are less combustible, perhaps, but in terms of programming decisions not much more charitable. Littlefield cites the story that Tartikoff conceived the idea for “The Cosby Show” as “a legend cultivated by Brandon, who as a network president knew better than anyone how to prolong his position. It’s not true, of course. It’s just as false as the legend that Brandon ‘created’ ‘Miami Vice’ by suggesting ‘MTV cops.’ ”
Philosophically, Littlefield observes the two had “completely different approaches to development” and can’t resist gloating about NBC’s post-Tartikoff renaissance “despite the many predictions that I couldn’t fill Brandon’s shoes.”
Although some industry veterans suggest the book self-servingly spins certain events, there’s no denying the magic NBC conjured in the ’80s and ’90s. What’s more troubling than assigning credit, frankly, is the possibility people will derive unfortunate lessons about clashing egos and dysfunction yielding positive creative results. While that might be true on occasion, the notion reinforces a Darwinian faith in intramural conflict. It’s also worth noting CBS’ management team appears to get along quite well, and they’ve done more than OK the last several years.
Whatever the precise truth, Littlefield’s account often sounds like a lousy way to live, turning positions that ought to be fun and glamorous into pitched combat, albeit with white gloves. Perish the thought future TV honchos contemplate the stormy interactions that characterized NBC’s heyday and think, Well, it worked for them.
When Littlefield finally gets to NBC firing him despite years of loyal service, he quotes Ohlmeyer saying, “Maybe there should be a statute of limitations on these jobs.”
Although term limits for top network gigs aren’t formally legislated, historically, few people last more than four years in one. A casual observer skimming “Top of the Rock” — devoted to a stretch where so much went spectacularly right — might understandably wonder how somebody survives in the trenches even that long.