Warren Littlefield was the NBC President of Entertainment during the '90s and was Brandon Tartikoff's key lieutenant in the '80s. Under his watch NBC enjoyed unprecedented success. He wrote a terrific book about his days there called TOP OF THE ROCK: INSIDE THE RISE AND FALL OF MUST SEE TV. You can get it here on Amazon and here at Barnes & Noble.
I worked with Warren for over twenty years. Recently I sat down and interviewed him for the blog. There are great inside stories about all the key NBC shows as told by the people who made them. I'll let you read the book for those. I asked him more about the nature and responsibilities of his job, research testing, the contrast in programing and management philosophies between then and now, the future of TV, and what he looks for in a pilot script. It's a fairly long interview so I've broken it into two parts. Here's part one. It concludes tomorrow. Many thanks to Warren for sharing his thoughts with us.
You must’ve put in very long days, beginning with waking up early to get the overnight ratings.
Actually a little before 6 A.M. It was report card day. That wasn’t always a great day for me. I managed to have a job where that would happen every single morning before 6m. And my day would end sometime after THE TONIGHT SHOW was over. So I usually crashed around 12:30.
Friday mornings must’ve been great though, getting the overnights from “Must See TV.”
Everyone in the industry knew to go into NBC to pitch on Friday. Thursday night we were so huge that we were giddy the entire day. We’d buy anything on a Friday because we felt that good.
Great. Now you tell me. We always pitched on Monday.
For years Friday night sucked, and it would take most of Saturday to work through feeling like an idiot and I was going to lose my job.
Talk a little about time management.
I tried to have half of my day focused on the product that was on the air and then the other half devoted to the future. But you could put in a sixteen-hour day as head of an entertainment division of a network and just react to problems. And at the end of the sixteen-hours you could be very tired, you may have been an expert fire fighter, you’ve put out a lot of fires, but you haven’t done your job if you haven’t worked on building for the future because the black box is always hungry and you must be ready to deal with failure and have something there that deals with your needs.
A large part of your job, and probably the toughest part, was having to deliver bad news.
Most of television, most of what goes out there, doesn’t work. And so you have very bright people, trying as hard as they can, staying up day and night looking to break through with that product. And most of the time it doesn’t work. The audience rejects it. They never come to your party no matter how much advertising and promotion you give it. We had a lot of failure, so looking someone in the eye, not handing the bad news off to someone else , taking that responsibility yourself, putting a face on it I thought was really important. Because the fact of the matter was those same artists that killed themselves on that failure could be your salvation the next go-round and we knew we needed their talent for the future. And it was just the right thing to do.
Let’s get into one of my pet peeves -- research testing.
It’s terribly flawed. The one television piece of memorabilia in my office that always makes me smile and is on the wall is the original research report for SEINFELD. And it’s signed by the cast and Larry David. Overall evaluation: Weak. And it proceeds to say why no one likes these characters and why the show will never work. And it’s a great reminder that if you have a show that doesn’t follow the rules – sure, if you’re doing THE COSBY SHOW and you test that… a brilliant comedy that turned the lights back on for NBC… yeah, trust the research on that. But a show like SEINFELD or THE SOPRANOS, any show that tries to be extraordinary and different, that are not so easily digestible. The kinds of things that really defines cable television these days -- forget the research. It’s about a vision; it’s about going with your gut.
This is one of the things that I harp on and will probably hurt me with the networks as a result, but I believe there is way too much micromanaging going on at the networks these days. Do you agree?
Without a doubt. As I like to tell writers potentially coming to work for me -- I’m there to help them find their vision and protect it. And there’s an army of well-dressed, very articulate young executives at both the studio and the network who want the best for your project, but if you were to listen to all of their notes you’d probably not recognize the show you first set out to do. It’s now a process that goes through many many hands and eyes.
I think a lot of the unpredictable, brilliant, never-saw-it-coming, left and right hand turns in a script come because somewhere in the middle of the night the writer goes “oh wow, why don’t I try this?” And I think the process is so difficult and so measured there’s no time left in the writing and they’re afraid to make those turns because no one’s approved them. It was a much simpler streamlined process where we trusted the writer’s vision, and I’d hate to sound like the old guy here but the process today is not better.
So why do you think they do it?
I think some very good notes can come out of it. But what writers and well-informed producers need is a filter to say, “You know out of those eight thoughts there was one that was very interesting. Let’s go explore that.” But there may have been seven that will do harm to the project. And I think in my network years, one of the things we instilled in our programmers was to trust the people you were in business with. And it’s a lesson I’m comfortable repeating and it may hurt me as well, Ken.
I always felt that when I got notes from you on pilots that we were never forced to do them. As long as we seriously considered them, if there were some we chose not to execute that was okay.
Just listen. Right. I think far too often studios today won’t turn your script back in unless all the notes have been addressed. We’ve had note sessions on outlines that have been ninety minutes/two hours. Not even on the script. Just the outline. And that outline document is over twenty pages. It’s like – you know what? Why don’t you let them just go off and write it?
I remember in the old days, we would never write pilot outlines. We would come in and pitch you the story. You gave feedback, we discussed it and that was it. Twenty minutes later we’d go off to write the script.
It’s gotten a little crazy and I think that’s been the lure of cable. The financial upside to working in cable is not as great as working for a network. And yet so many artists have said, “We’ll take creative freedom. We’ll take the ability to make turns and follow ideas and material and character and concepts that the networks won’t give us the freedom to do.”
We want to reflect the crazy diverse world that we all live in and cable has embraced that and it’s really really hurt the network television business. The other thing is that the feature business is insane. Features are geared for very young audiences. It’s really about prequels, sequels, franchises. And so the real creative freedom is most often found in cable.
Tomorrow: What Warren looks for in pilot scripts, what is the current network business model, and what is the future of network television? In TV we would call that a "cliffhanger." And did you realize we're now in November sweeps?
Again, thanks to Warren Littlefield.