Friday, March 06, 2015

Looking Back on Must See TV


These days there seems to be an overabundance of reality and crime dramas on TV. I miss the days of the sitcoms, like in the time of NBC's Must See TV programming. The peacock network thrived with shows like The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, Frasier and more. The period of NBC's ratings dominance has been outlined in a book by their former head of entertainment, Warren Littlefield. The book is called "Top of the Rock-Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV".

Littlefield was portrayed in the show Seinfeld by the character actor Bob Balaban, who voiced the audio version of the book.

This book has many facts about the TV shows that we all grew to love on NBC. Here are a few of the interesting tidbits from the book.

Cheers started out slow, ratings-wise, in 1982, but grew into a cash cow for the network. John Lithgow was considered for the role of Frasier. That is hard to believe now since Kelsey Grammer is known for playing this character for 20 years, spanning 2 shows. During the taping of Cheers, the cast needed to have an intervention with Grammer to address his substance abuse issues.

When the show Seinfeld was being launched in 1989, Rosie O'Donnell and Megan Mullally tried out for the role of Elaine, which of course went to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Seinfeld was unselfish on the show. He wanted his co-stars to shine. He was the co-creator of the show, along with Larry David, but he did not insist on all of the best lines for himself. At its peak, the network would charge $800,000 for a 30 second spot.

In 1992, Mad About You premiered on NBC. Paul Reiser had starred previously on the sitcom My Two Dads with Greg Evigan (BJ and the Bear). The lead female role of Jamie went to Helen Hunt, but Teri Hatcher and Valerie Bertinelli were also considered.

In 1994, Littlefield knew that NBC had to find a show to replace LA Law at 10 pm. He decided to put the show ER on the air, with the strong ensemble cast. This show would make stars out of George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Julianna Marguiles, and others. CBS went head-to-head against ER with their own medical drama, Chicago Hope. ER came out the winner, and would air on NBC for 15 years. Shooting a one hour medical drama was grueling for the cast and crew. Often they would work 14-17 hour days, covering 8-10 pages of script each day. The cast said that they had a hard time enjoying the ride since they were working all of the time.

Thursday night was like a money machine for NBC. The one night generated more revenue from advertising than all other 6 nights combined. All of this money enabled NBC to expand their reach into cable TV, with the launch of CNBC and MSNBC, as well as sports programming.

Under the leadership of Littlefield, the network launched the quirky comedy 3rd Rock from the Sun. John Lithgow starred in the show as the alien patriarch, Dick Solomon. Lithgow had worked in many films, including The World According to Garp, with Robin Williams. French Stewart, Jane Curtin, Kristin Johnston and Joseph Gordon Levitt were the co-stars of 3rd Rock.

Just Shoot Me became part of the Must See TV lineup, starring David Spade. This was created by Steven Levitan, who also developed the current ABC hit, Modern Family.

In 1998, Will and Grace became a hit for NBC. With a 30 minute sitcom, the cast only worked 3 hours per day. The writing was so strong that it was an easy project. Over a period of 8 years on the air, every episode was directed by James Burrows. He is known as the master sitcom director, with 10 primetime Emmy wins under his belt. He has directed the shows Taxi, Cheers, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NewsRadio, Mike and Molly and more. The book mentioned his impeccable comic instincts that make him a top notch director for TV. Will and Grace attracted 18-19 million viewers per week.

Friends director James Burrows knew that the show would be a hit even before it hit the air. He took the 6 members of the ensemble cast to Vegas for a weekend to gamble and have a good time. They flew on the NBC corporate jet. This was before anyone knew the cast, and he told them to enjoy their last moments of anonymity. How right he was.

Littlefield did not hold back in the book as far as his distaste for some of his fellow TV executives. He was especially harsh on Don Ohlmeyer, who fired him from his NBC position. He was also very critical of Jeff Zucker, who took over for Littlefield after his departure. He said that Zucker did not have a love for the medium of TV. He only cared about making money. Zucker cared about manipulating viewers, not nourishing them. He was ousted in 2011 when Comcast merged with NBC and cleaned house.

The book mentioned how much the broadcast TV landscape has changed over the past 15 years. Everything is fractured, with so much competition from cable and the internet. American Idol gets one third the audience of The Cosby Show and it is a smash. A challenge for TV executives is the fact that so many people are not watching shows live. Many are watching on a DVR, skipping through the commercials. Broadcast networks teamed up with their former cable adversaries, with ABC merging with Disney and ESPN.

This book is an excellent read for those who want to know about the inner workings of a successful TV network at its peak.

* Some material from imdb.com.
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