Tuesday, November 06, 2012

My talk with Warren Littlefield: Part Two

Happy Election Day. Get out there and vote. This is part two of my interview with former President of Entertainment for NBC, Warren Littlefield. Part one was yesterday. Warren has a great book about his years at NBC and all the classic shows he oversaw. It's called TOP OF THE ROCK: THE RISE AND FALL OF "MUST SEE TV" and it's available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other venues.

Over the years as an executive and more recently a producer, you’ve read thousands of pilots. What are you looking for in a pilot script?

A strong original voice. I’m looking for a point of view. We’re in an age where we have more entertainment choices across all kinds of platforms then we’ve ever had before. So in this world of infinite choice, when I read something I do want it to grab me. It doesn’t have to be loud, but I want to be pulled into a character, understand what they’re dealing with. I want to be entertained and if I’m even enlightened that would be a bonus, but I want to be pulled into it, and how do you do that? That’s a feeling, that’s not a recipe.

But I know I want strong original characters with a strong point of view, a voice, a world that we haven’t been in. I do ask myself a very simple question: what is this about? What’s the thematic? And as the writer, you want to be able to articulate in a pretty clean couple of sentences “I want to write about this.”

And of course the other thing that is asked in most sales situations, whether it’s network or cable, “Why this? Why now?” Why you?” And so when a writer tells me an incredible story about his parents, his family – an experience that they had – and I understand that they’re writing from a really strong place, that always interests me. I want them to be connected. I’m not going to be terribly interested unless the writer is incredibly knowledgeable about the area and they’ve either lived it or researched it. That they know it really really well. And it’s not a good sign if I’m listening to a pitch and I’m more knowledgeable about that area than the writer.

And what about for comedies? How important is it that they be funny?

Oh God, that’s critical, isn’t it? You want to care, but you also want to know where the comedy is going to come from. I dare anyone to describe CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM without absolutely making me laugh by that description. You must be funny. That’s what you’re buying. You’re buying a sensibility. So you want to hear that in the pitch, you want to hear that in a spec. We want that specificity, that language to come through.

What do you see as the future of network television in this crazy multi-platform world?

The business model for most networks is of course that they’re not just a network. They are a content provider, and the business model today works if you have content that breaks through to ten million people, you own it for eternity, and you can market it across every possible platform all over the world. Networks are faced with more competition than ever. Their target is not fishermen. They have a broader focus. They need to hit not two million passionate viewers; their goal still is ten million devoted viewers. So it’s harder to be a broadcaster than a narrow caster.

But there are still plenty of examples of how it works. The value of live event television, which is something that networks do better than any other outlet – in sports, in live competition shows – of just how powerful and immediate the response is. And that’s something that networks continue to dominate.

Any last thing that you would want to add, besides “buy my book”?

I have a holiday gift – one other item that’s in my office – and it’s leather embossed and in gold lettering it says, “It’s about the writing, stupid” and that’s my reminder to everyone. That it all begins and ends with the words. If the writing is there, go for it. That’s what every buyer should be motivated by.

Once again, my extreme thanks to Warren Littlefield.  Do buy his book. 


Curt Alliaume said...

Great interview. I read the book a few months back and really enjoyed it. In many ways, it's more of an oral history - a lot of the people involved with the Must-See TV years of the '90s are interviewed extensively (actors, writers, showrunners, etc.). It would make a good Christmas gift for anyone who likes TV history.

Jerry K. said...

Great interview Ken. Very enlightening.

This second part had Warren describe why networks have to go for a "broad" audience with the different content delivery channels. It differs from my suggestion about going for a narrower demographic that can be reached through all the channels.

He didn't mention monetizing network programs which seems to be discussed as a future way to raise revenue via product placement that allows the viewer to purchase that fabulous rug used on the set of the show. Even purchase it using their smart TV with a keyboard or through the mobile device/computer on which they are watching the program.

We could swing back to the 1950's model where P&G sponsors a program that viewers could purchase products interactively while the program is on. Who knows?

The bottom line is the shows have to be good to get people to watch and I love Warren's last comment about writers. Of course he knew his audience of the interview didn't he...

Anonymous said...

Thanks! That was a really interesting interview!

Eric J said...

"... a future way to raise revenue via product placement that allows the viewer to purchase that fabulous rug used on the set of the show."

What an absolutely horrifying idea! Who thinks of things like this? Can you imagine being a writer on a show where someone out there even NOTICES the freakin' rug on the floor? You only have them for 22 minutes and they are going to wander off and SHOP while you are telling a story? Shoot me. Just shoot me.

Chris said...

I am printing this and reading it to my television pilot class this afternoon. This is golden. Thanks.

Madame Duchery said...

Weird. This didn't ping my RSS reader.

Jerry K. said...

Eric J.
I wish what I mentioned wasn't true but it has been progressing forward for several years.

Here is just one Master's Thesis on the subject from a student back in 2004!

Imagine a scene in Modern Family or The Middle and a pizza delivery guy is at the door in a scene. Next up is a link on the corner of the screen to order a pizza from Pizza Hut or Dominos and get a special discount becuase you saw it on the show right then.

And as for my rug reference - my wife is an interior designer and they constantly have people bring in portable DVD players and laptops and they want the rug or lamp or couch used in a TV show.

There are blogs based on sourcing the furniture etc. of TV shows and movies.

It's just a matter of when and how they start doing it.

Let's see, where's that college catalog? Wait until USC starts the course "Sitcom Copywriting 101". How to seamlessly place commercial copy in your script and push the story forward...


Mac said...

Very interesting, I will indeed buy the book.

I saw a bizarre feature on how products are digitally inserted into sitcom repeats, where someone noticed in an ep of (I think) How I Met Your Mother - a copy of the Zookeeper DVD on the shelf, although that movie didn't out until after that season had aired.

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. Regarding project placement: My pre-Cambrian years were spent on The Jeffersons. The show got a lot of letters. By far the greatest number were not about content, even people angry over the interracial couple; it was asking who painted the seascape near the front door and was it available for purchase. By FAR the most letters.

mickey said...

I looked up the audiobook online and saw that the narrator of Littlefield's book is Bob Balaban....not that there's anything wrong with that.

Oliver said...

I recall an interview where Dan Harmon said executives loved personal stories, so he advised prospective writers to make up personal stories to make their pitches seem more appealing.

Sounds like Harmon had their number.

YEKIMI said...

Watching an episode of M*A*S*H* called "Hey, Look Me Over" it basically took one of the background actors, Kellye Nakahara, and elevated her to a featured role. Is that a result of A] Her or her agent lobbying for an increased role, B] Realizing that you've written about every scenario you could for the main "stars" so you're looking around for a way to spice things up by featuring some of the more underused people, C] Just some other reason unbeknown to the viewers. I realize you & David didn't write this episode but it was something I was curious about and figured maybe you could shed some light on it.

cadavra said...

One of the great things about period shows (e.g., "Copper," "Hell On Wheels") is that there's no opportunity for product placement, except perhaps for coal and candles.

Unknown said...

Thanks Ken! We aspiring writers don't often get such access to the thought processes of decision makers.

I have read his book and enjoyed it.