Consider these two facts: In 1994 and 1995, an average of 75 million Americans tuned in every Thursday night to NBC. And during entertainment president Warren Littlefield’s tenure, NBC won 168 Emmy Awards.
“Staggering,” said WME’s Rick Rosen, as he opened the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s luncheon celebrating NBC’s “Must See TV” in Beverly Hills. The lineup was pretty staggering, too. Rosen and Littlefield were joined by the Beckman Group’s Preston Beckman, Freeform’s Karey Burke, FX’s John Landgraf, Showtime’s David Nevins, TBS and TNT’s Kevin Reilly, and Big Beach’s Robin Schwartz — all of whom briefly worked together at NBC in the ’90s. The event looked back at the network’s signature hits developed under Littlefield, including “ER,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Will & Grace,” and “Law & Order.”
Littlefield began by crediting the guiding principles of his mentors, Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker, the latter of whom was known for the dictum, “First be best, then be first.” (Tinker passed away in November.)
“Grant didn’t pontificate a lot, but one of things that he told us when we were kids running around the network is, ‘Stop thinking about the audience as a bunch of aliens out there,'” Littlefield said. Tinker instead implored them to “Just put shows on that you would want to watch.”
That philosophy extended to many of the choices made under Littlefield. Schwartz described a company retreat in which Littlefield gave each of the programming executives a rock with the word “risk” written on it. When the pilot script for “Will & Grace” was up for consideration, she and her team slipped into Littlefield’s office while he was away. “We put that script on Warren’s desk and we all piled our rocks” on it. The show would become the first on NBC to feature a gay lead.
Littlefield would fight to get the pilot made, as did a number of his employees, including Nevins. One of their opponents was Littlefield’s boss, Don Ohlmeyer.
Nevins described a meeting in Ohlmeyer’s office when Littlefield announced that the pilot was being picked up: “Don got up out of his seat, stood over me … and said, ‘What f–king world do you live in where you think America wants to watch [a show with gay characters]?'” “Will & Grace” won 16 Emmys and is now being revived at NBC.
“We had a tough boss that we all had to work for,” Littlefield said. “What it did, working for Don, was that it united us. If you really believed in something, you better stand up and fight for it.” In the television universe, he added, “Shows succeed because someone within that organization is willing to die for that show.”
Landgraf added, “That dude was scary.”
Reilly described the first screening of the “ER” pilot at NBC. “It was like someone farted in the room,” he said. “It was not a successful outing.”
Ohlmeyer was livid, and the prospects for the show did not look good. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, then head of Warner Bros. television, scrambled to put together a test screening that night to change the NBC team’s take on the show.
“I’m at home eating dinner with my girlfriend at about eight-o-clock,” Nevins said. “I get a call, and it’s this guy named Leslie Moonves. He says, ‘Get down here.'” Nevins drove to the Warner Bros. lot, where he watched a test screening that was received so enthusiastically, he left suspicious that Moonves had stacked it with Warner Bros. employees. But a subsequent NBC screening also tested high, easing the way for the show to make it to air.
Beckman recalled that the network then tested it by airing it on a cable channel. Cable providers, Beckman said, “were getting calls from viewers who had stumbled on ‘ER’ while they were grazing and called up asking when the next episode was going to be.”
“Friends” came in as a pitch from David Crane and Marta Kauffman. “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I can remember that pitch,” Burke said. “They were so clever. They were finishing each other’s sentences.”
Another defining comedy was “Seinfeld” — again a show that Littlefield had to fight to get on the air.
“The research report came in, and unlike ‘ER,’ it was probably the lowest testing pilot in the history of NBC.” He described the feedback from the test audience, “These are losers. It’s not funny. We know who Jerry Seinfeld is. He should not do this show.” The show was also described, according to Nevins, as “too Jewish.”
Littlefield decided to kill a Bob Hope birthday special and use the money to pick up four episodes of “Seinfeld.” “Bob Hope still thinks you made that special,” Beckman added.
At Nevins’ insistence, Landgraf told the story of how he met his wife, actress Ally Walker. Landgraf was working as a drama development executive, and was assigned to cover freshman series “Profiler” on which Walker starred. The two began dating, and Landgraf finally decided to tell Littlefield about the relationship only after they became engaged.
But two days later, Walker had to take an insurance day from set, because she was pregnant. “I had to go back to Warren 48 hours later and say, ‘Hey, you know that thing I told you about Ally and me dating? Well, she’s pregnant.'”
“Wow, that kid really covers a show,” Reilly joked.
But Landgraf recalled Littlefield’s reaction: “I’m sure he sat in his office wondering if he should fire me, but instead he brought me a bottle of champagne as he was leaving that night.”