Monday, November 05, 2012

My talk with Warren Littlefield

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.  


Mac said...

Very interesting. Look forward to reading the book. Will be interesting to see how NBC and other networks react to it.

Jeannie said...

I always cringe when executives refer to television programs as "products." They're not tampons. They're TV shows. Maybe if the networks got back into the entertainment business instead of the income-generating-focus-group-tested-notes-given-to-death product business they'd be better off.

Brian said...

Great interview. I read the book a few months back and loved it. Required reading for anyone who loves TV and the "Must-See TV" era in particular.

It reminded of something I had discussed with a coworker of mine at 30 Rock (the building, not the show) - that there are very few "legends" left in the TV business. Great executives such as Mr. Littlefield are long gone. After Dick Ebersol left a few years back, only Lorne Michaels remains as a symbol of what network TV once was.

Can't wait to read part 2!

Cory said...

It's funny to me how all of the successful TV and movie executives say the same thing "Hire talented people and either help them or get out of their way." Do the people who are terrible in the position or fail at think they are doing the same thing?

Doctor of Trivia said...

I second Cory's question. If we could submit the same questions to current NBC management, with some truth serum, what would we learn? And what would their corporate parents' management think of that?

VillainLabs said...

I know it is not possible to put a show or a movie to the public without studio execs having their say on the script and giving notes... however less bureaucracy sometime can lead to better outcome.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff. Thanks for posting.

Jerry K. said...

As a writer it's a pain knowing that the networks exist to sell commercials. They are beholden to the sponsors, not the creatives.

In the early days it was the sponsors that brought the shows to the networks. "Texaco Star Theatre" aka Milton Berle show, "DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars" became The Jackie Gleason show.

Even my beloved (and apparently Ken's too) "The Dick Van Dyke Show" were actually saved by sponsors. Sheldon Leonard traveled to Proctor & Gamble's headquarters to ask for support of the show. P&G and Kent Cigarettes underwrote a second season to be produced. It wasn't needed once the first season hit summer reruns and their numbers skyrocketed.

Nowadays the networks pick the shows to get the demographic ratings and then sell the commercial time. The more popular a show is with the target demo, the higher the commercial sales.

So if your "product" is the show, then you want to control the product. Make it as appealing as possible to the demographic.

Not only am I a writer, I also have an MBA and have a few businesses of my own. (Along the theme of re-inventing from Ken's post a few days ago)

You can't design a product by committee. Anything that is designed to appeal to the masses, appeals to nobody.

Instead I've found, create a specific product and have a defined vision/purpose/theme. You can sell the "best in class". Don't try to steer it to a specific target market.

Your market will find you. And if the network people were smart, they would sell the air time to the sponsors who desired the show's natural demographics.

Of course there is the whole shifting content delivery paradigm (sorry union MBA rules say I have to use that word once a month) of people watching programs on cable, over the internet etc. That is a different discussion.

But the current working network situation has studio people with their hands in the show production cookie jar. It will change, as it always does. We just have to keep creating and nudging the industry in our direction.

But the current working network situation has studio people with their hands in the show production cookie jar. It will change, as it always does. We just have to keep creating and nudging the industry in our direction.

dan'l said...

Hilarious that his audio book is read by Bob Balaban, who played him on Seinfeld.

Christodoulos said...

Great idea to interview Littlefield, Ken, I am waiting for the second part. Mind if I ask for more? It would be great if you could interview Aaron Sorkin and Tina Fey -- and people who had worked for classics such as THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW or BARNEY MILLER or MASH, for example.

Cap'n Bob said...

I have a feeling you could fire 90% of the executives at any network and not lose a thing.

Mac said...

Hey Ken? That "Family Guys?" doc I recommended to you? I watched the second half tonight and it turns out you're in it! So the recommendation is probably a tad redundant.

So I'll just cough politely before shuffling away and whistling to fill the silence...

Johnny Walker said...

Yikes. I'm frustrated just reading about the way things are being run, never mind actually being in the thick of it. *shudders*

Tim W. said...

Is there any way to forward this post to pretty much all the executives at all the networks?

mdv59 said...

Very interesting, I'm looking forward to part 2.

Reading this reminded me of a really good interview of Kevin Reilly (currently a Fox exec) on KCRW a couple of years ago. You can find it at:

חבילות ספורט said...

still waiting to part 2...

chuckcd said...

Funny, but every time I see the name Warren Littlefield, I see that actor who played the NBC exec on Seinfeld.

Very interesting interview. Thanks to Mr Littlefield for his thoughts.

RealPeacock said...

"It's about going with your gut." Or, in the case of SEINFELD, Rick Ludwin's gut. He was the only guy who fought for the show when it was The Seinfeld Chronicles.

Hecky said...


Given the success of sabremetrics and deft statistical analysis in both sports and now politics (Nate Silver corrected predicted everything but the senate race in North Dakota), how can you be so opposed to research testing in principle when it comes to entertainment? Certainly it's true that a lot of research is done poorly (e.g. bad methodology, unwarranted conclusions/inferences, sloppy handling of the data, etc.). The companies doing it for profit don't make their methods publicly available, so who knows if what they're doing is any good. But I don't think that justifies a wholesale rejection of the entire enterprise. Maybe we just haven't seen a Nate Silver of Nielsen yet.

All this stuff about "going with your gut" and just finding "great" material and having "vision" -- unquantifiable rules of thumb -- strikes me as complete huey. It's the exact same sort of dogma that got so deliciously panned in "Moneyball" and in all the election post-mortems about FOX News predictions over the last two days. When done right, statistical research methods work, and it doesn't really matter what's being analyzed. It could be baseball, TV, the stock market, or politics. TV is about making money by generating ratings. And I don't see why we shouldn't expect proper research to aid in achieving that goal. It's just a matter of figuring out the right paramaters by which to measure the performance of one's algorithm.

Mike said...

@Hecky: Very interesting question: Why is research testing for TV programmes unreliable? The article suggests that test viewers reject the unfamiliar.
In my arrogance & ignorance, I'll suggest the following:
a) Nate Silver used a weighted average of polls, which may well be the same technique used in calculating ratings. The accuracy of ratings is not disputed.
b) Political pundits did not attempt to accurately forecast the election. They sold pre-written narratives to support their own agendas: to boost their own candidates and exaggerate their own importance.
c) Early ratings are as much a function of marketing & scheduling as of the programme itself.
d) A programme may need time to develop. Once upon a time, record companies allowed time for new artists to develop.
e) Research tests (I'm guessing this means focus groups) are very different from ratings. (I'm guessing that) the sample sizes are far smaller and may not be large enough to yield accurate estimates.
f) Where focus groups are used with large sample sizes, eg. TV talent contests, this is no guarantee of success. The UK X-Factor has produced one or two successful artists, while the majority of winners disappear without trace, almost immediately.
g) Television also needs to produce critically successful programmes which are not commercially sucessful (ie. low ratings). Eg. I only watch documentaries, concerts and programmes like The Wire.

Erin said...

I was not a TV watcher in the 80s, and I'm not one now, but there was just something about Seinfeld, Just Shoot Me, Friends, Frasier, Wings, Suddenly Susan, and Veronica's Closet that made me love TV sitcoms for a few years. I made it a priority to watch those shows. When I try to watch more current shows that everyone loves, like The Office or Parks and Recreation I just feel uncomfortable and kind of bummed out. I can't put my finger on what the difference is, but the tone of the humor has changed, and not for the better. I'm not a writer or involved in the industry in any way, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I just wanted to leave this comment where someone might read it. I mean, I hope I'm not just one of those people who hates anything new! I found this blog by searching for information on "Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs," by the way, and I've been feeling nostalgic for Must See TV today, so I'm watching Frasier on Netflix.