Is acrimony a must for must-see TV?

Littlefield memoir filled with tales of tension atop NBC

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.

More TV

  • Quibi Target of Injunction by Eko

    Jeffrey Katzenberg's Quibi Target of Injunction Seeking to Block Its Turnstyle Mobile Tech

    Five days before Quibi’s scheduled April 6 launch, the Jeffrey Katzenberg-founded mobile-video venture has been hit with another legal action — demanding that Quibi be forced to stop using technology it allegedly stole from an interactive-video company. The motion seeking a preliminary injunction against Quibi comes from New York-based Eko, which last month sued Quibi [...]

  • Comic-Con atmosphere

    Comic-Con Still on for July Despite Coronavirus Fears

    The organizers of San Diego Comic-Con are still “hopeful” that it will take place in July as planned, despite mounting fears that putting on the largest fan convention in the country would be dangerous given the current coronavirus climate. Events of all kinds have been canceled around it, yet Comic-Con remains scheduled to take place [...]

  • Sinclair

    IATSE Slams Sinclair for Coronavirus Response to Sports Broadcast Freelancers

    Amid an industry-wide shutdown amid a pandemic that has put millions out of work, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has criticized Sinclair Broadcast Group’s plan to loan money to certain freelancers, calling it an inadequate response to these unprecedented times. Last week, in response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Sinclair unveiled a multi-million-dollar [...]

  • Real Housewives New York 90 Day

    HGTV, TLC, Bravo and Others Say Their Reality TV Stockpile Can Outlast Coronavirus

    The week of March 9 — when the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson shared the news that they had tested positive for COVID-19 —  a cascade of television shows and movies shut their productions down for safety reasons. From “Stranger Things” to “The Batman,” these shutterings are temporary, [...]

  • Joe Exotic Dillon Passage Tiger King

    'Tiger King' Star Joe Exotic's Fourth Husband Dillon Speaks Out (Exclusive Video)

    The Tiger King is still a married man. Ever since “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” dropped on Netflix less than two weeks ago, viewers have wondered if Joe Exotic (whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage) and his fourth husband, Dillon Passage, are still together. “We are still married,” Passage, 24, said during an exclusive [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content