Warren Littlefield's NBC a far different era

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NEW YORK (AP) — After being fired as NBC entertainment president toward the end of the "must see TV" period in 1998, Warren Littlefield packed photos, papers, awards and other memorabilia into a self-storage unit and turned the key.

For 10 years he paid the rent and never stopped by. Finally, on a Saturday afternoon, he unlocked the vault and began combing through the boxes — a process of rediscovery that eventually led to his new book, "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV."

Jerry Seinfeld, Kelsey Grammer, Lisa Kudrow, Anthony Edwards and Debra Messing are among more than 50 people who help Littlefield tell inside stories about "Seinfeld," ''Friends," ''Frasier," ''ER," ''Will & Grace" and what went on within NBC to make its Thursday-night lineup the most powerful one in television during the 1990s.

"It was a very good decision for me to live in the present and not in the past, but after 10 years I thought, 'Wow, the past was wonderful. And it's worth celebrating,'" he said.

He had intended it to be a narrative, but instead the book takes an oral history format. Littlefield found the interviews so insightful and entertaining he felt it was best to quote from them.

"I was the network president," Littlefield said. "I thought I knew everything. In every single interview, something was revealed to me and I thought, 'Why in the hell did I never know that?'"

For instance, George Clooney persuaded Julianna Margulies to choose "ER" rather than a role in "Homicide: Life on the Street" by telling her he had just been in a meeting with Littlefield and producer John Wells and the two men desperately wanted her for the new medical drama. It was a lie. There was no such meeting; Littlefield was letting her decide for herself.

There are plenty of fun inside stories, like when Noah Wyle of "ER" recalled being introduced to Rebecca De Mornay at a party for what he thought was the first time, only to be tartly informed by the actress that she had done six "ER" episodes and they had even shared a sex scene.

The six actors from "Friends" all had dinner with veteran director Jim Burrows in the middle of a Las Vegas restaurant before the first episode aired and he urged them to look around, that they'd never have the anonymity to do the simple thing of dining together unnoticed again.

Littlefield said he wrote the book for fans, not for score-settling or vindication. To the latter point, the facts speak loudly enough.

Even a decade ago toward the end of their runs, "Friends" and "ER" routinely reached more than 20 million people, sometimes approaching 30 million. This spring, shows on NBC on Thursday night are usually seen by between 2 million and 3 million people. Maybe half of that decline would be expected, since more competition and new technology make for lower television ratings overall. That doesn't account for such wholesale abandonment, though.

Since Littlefield conducted all of the interviews for "Top of the Rock" himself, it was surely awkward when Jack Welch, former head of NBC's parent company General Electric, explained that Littlefield was fired because executives felt he was a "dry hole."

In the book, Littlefield methodically details the billions of dollars in revenue earned by NBC's top shows in his era, comparing it with the network's current standing.

"Not bad for a dry hole," he writes.

Non-insiders also might not be aware that the accomplishments of NBC's entertainment division came despite dysfunction at the top. NBC's corporate structure had Littlefield reporting to another West Coast executive, Don Ohlmeyer, and the two men frequently clashed.

Ohlmeyer is notably missing from the people Littlefield quotes to talk about that time.

"He can tell his story," Littlefield said. "I'll tell my story. I know that his version might differ and this was my story to tell."

Littlefield is an independent producer now, quoting "Seinfeld" in saying he enjoys the opportunity to be "master of his own domain." The job offers freedom, but his business is now dependent on people who hold network jobs like the one he once had, including some who cut their teeth at NBC in the 1990s.

He said he'd "never say never" about working for a network again, but isn't expecting or angling for it. At a time of DVRs and dozens of networks making original programming, being an entertainment chief is harder than it was, he said.

He doesn't think a network will ever be able to dominate one night so thoroughly and for so long as "must see TV." Asked what NBC needs now to turn things around on Thursdays, he answers: "Modern Family." Specifically, it needs a buzzworthy hit with broad appeal that the network can build around, like what ABC has been doing on Wednesday nights.

NBC had its problems when he started the job, and Littlefield can quote without prompting a Time magazine article then that suggested NBC's cupboard was bare. He acknowledged mistakes, like passing on "Roseanne" before it became a hit for ABC. For a time, NBC ran reruns of "Cheers" on Thursday at 8 p.m., and its performance made executives realize there was an appetite for adult comedy there. "Mad About You" filled the hole.

The most important thing for fourth-place NBC now is a thorough self-evaluation, he said.

"We called it the 3 a.m. rule," he said. "You could find anyone (at NBC), wake them up at 3 o'clock in the morning and they could articulate here's what NBC wants, here's what NBC needs and this is who we are. Everyone was rowing in the same direction. Strategically we were united in what we were going after. Then we had to execute."

What may be TV's best-ever development season, the one that produced "Friends" and "ER," really got NBC rolling.

He said he hopes current NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt can succeed.

"There's a lot of opportunity," he said. "There's a lot of real estate. Hopefully with the right strategy and philosophy, they become stronger and more viable. That's good for everybody."

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