A Moment in Time: Must See TV
Friends and family
February 7, 2017. Beverly Wilshire. Hundreds of industry movers and shakers gathered together to enjoy a moment in time, the Must See TV of 90s NBC. The stage played host to reunited family members Warren Littlefield, Kevin Reilly, John Landgraf, David Nevins, Karey Burke, Robin Schwartz and Preston Beckman, who engaged in a candid, freewheeling discussion moderated by WME’s Rick Rosen.
Rosen began by noting “some incredible statistics to think about in today’s universe: in 1994-95, on an average Thursday night, 75 million Americans watched NBC”. He added that during the heyday of Must See TV, NBC won 168 Emmys, an unprecedented amount.
So what exactly was in the water? Littlefield, then President of NBC Entertainment, credited his mentor, Grant Tinker, saying that “Grant didn’t pontificate a lot but one of the things he told us when we were kids running around the network is to stop thinking about the audience as a bunch of aliens out there that you’re trying to figure out and just put shows on that you would watch”. At the beginning of the 90s, NBC was mired in last place and Tinker’s advice was to “first be best, then be first”. As for other secrets of their collective success, Reilly said that “I look down this line and I genuinely like and genuinely respect everyone on this panel, and there’s not a lot of organizations where you can say that”.
So what was it that made Must See TV so memorable?
Let’s begin the hit parade:
ER is an iconic show that ran for 16 seasons, with Rosen asking “what happened when ER came into the room?” Reilly and Nevins related that it was a 175-page long, “trunk job”, as in a script that had long been sitting gathering dust in a trunk, a script that Michael Crichton had written in 1973. After a few fits and starts, NBC shot it as a pilot and didn’t think it would be a huge hit but they did think it was really good. Drama was out of favor on television and when they screened the pilot, Nevins said that “it went over like a lead balloon”. Reilly concurred, adding “it was like someone farted in the room”.
Despite the poor initial reception, the NBC team believed that they had something great and they moved forward, with Littlefield saying that “in the network universe, shows succeed because someone within that organization was willing to die for that show”. As for scheduling, Rosen noted that CBS in 1994 had a medical pilot from David E. Kelley and that show got even more buzz around town than did ER, asking the team how this affected their process. Nevins said that “a current report from CBS started floating around NBC”, drawing a huge laugh when he added “and we were like ‘holy shit, in the first episode of Chicago Hope they’re transplanting a baboon’s heart into a little baby! They’re gonna kick our ass!’”. Schwartz added that people were concerned about ER’s frenetic pace, saying “and there was that moment of ‘It moves too fast! It moves too fast! You’ve gotta slow it down!’”
Despite all of the obstacles, Littlefield confirmed that ultimately “we believed in the writers and the producers, the showrunners who had a vision”. He added that the sales department shared ER out at a 22 rating, but the NBC creative team believed it was better than that and so held back a lot of inventory. Two months into its run, ER had a 45 share.
Burke heard the initial pitch for FRIENDS and Rosen asked her how it played in the room. She laughed as she replied “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast but I remember that pitch”, going on to add that creators Kauffman and Crane “were finishing each other’s sentences, and it was so clear that they knew each other so intimately”. They were playwrights and pitched the show “like a two-hander play, it was like watching George and Gracie”. At that time, Landgraf was the new kid on the block and his expertise was drama, he laughed as he recalled “I didn’t know anything about comedy, I had literally zero experience in comedy and so my main contribution in that year was to give terrible, sucky notes to David Crane and Marta Kauffman”.
WILL & GRACE
Back in the 1990s, openly gay characters on network television were very controversial. Rosen asked Schwartz about the development of the first show to feature an openly gay lead, and she related how the whole NBC team went on a corporate retreat and “at the end, Warren gave us all these rocks, this big garden rock and on the rock it said ‘RISK’” and then when the final script for Will & Grace was ready, Nevins and Schwartz’s team snuck into Littlefield’s office and “we put that script on Warren’s desk and we all piled our rocks, this big mountain of rocks that said ‘RISK’”.
Nevins recalled how he and Littlefield and their team had a meeting with their common boss and at the end of the meeting their boss asked “what f-king world do you live in where you think America wants to watch this?” Littlefield greenlit the pilot anyway and related how “that night when we were on the CBS Radford stage where the Will & Grace pilot shot, the audience were stomping, screaming, and that was it, I said ‘this is a hit show’”. Landgraf said that “the pilot played as a brilliant, riveting love story between a gay man and a heterosexual woman and the audience responded to it, it was profound”.
As for the show about nothing, Littlefield noted its atypical origins, saying “the pilot screened great, we loved it and then the research report came in and it was probably the lowest-testing pilot in the history of NBC”. The report said that “these are losers. It’s not funny”. Beckman and others were strong believers in the show and so the team decided to move forward. In that year, NBC had already picked up a bunch of other shows and didn’t have much room left in their primetime budget and so they took money away from late night, from a Bob Hope special, and Littlefield called Jerry Seinfeld to say “we’re going to continue the show, we’re ordering four episodes”. Jerry was quiet and respectful and said “just one question: in the history of television, has anything ever worked with a four-episode order?”, Littlefield said he didn’t know, Seinfeld agreed to move forward and “that began the marriage”. The power of good content cannot be overstated, with Littlefield noting how “in the 90s at NBC that show was a beacon to the creative community, the kind of beacon that kept all of us in our jobs”.