It could have been called “Night of Bests,” but NBC execs, including former president of NBC Entertainment Warren Littlefield, knew that wasn't quite right. It was the early '90s and juggernauts Cheers and The Cosby Show had recently ended their runs. The network was nervous. “I was getting killed by The Simpsons,” Littlefield said.
NBC needed something to fill those gaping holes, so they made a risky move in order to “keep the lights on” on Thursdays. “No one had ever programmed for adults in the 8 o'clock hour with adult comedy,” Littlefield said during a panel last night at the Paley Center. Historically, family comedy ruled that slot. But NBC decided to swap in Mad About You — a program that was managing to garner the coveted 18-49 viewership on Saturday nights. In the fall of 1993, NBC's new Thursday lineup led with that show, followed by Wings, Seinfeld and L.A. Law. The ratings enjoyed a boost from putting what NBC considered their best shows all on one night.
Now all it needed was a catchy slogan.
“In the bowels of the promotion department, a guy goes, 'Must-See TV,'” Littlefield recalled. “John Miller, who ran advertising and promotions said, 'I like it. It rhymes.'”
There began a decade of “destination” television-watching for NBC, a time that's been captured in Littlefield's new book Top of the Rock, which, as he says, highlights “one network, one night, one decade.”
Last night at the Paley Center, Littlefield celebrated the book with some of his former NBC cohorts — James Burrows, executive producer and director of shows such as Cheers and Will & Grace; David Nevins, former senior vice president of primetime series at NBC and now the president of entertainment at Showtime; Marta Kauffman, co-creator and executive producer of Friends; and Noah Wyle, better known as Dr. Carter from ER.
The reminiscing included observations about what worked on Must-See TV, and why it worked. Was there a magic formula to it? An algorithm other networks would be wise to repeat? Of course there wasn't — most of Must-See TV's success was chalked up to what everyone kept referring to as “lightning in a bottle.” They'd figured out how to package something powerful, and for a solid decade it endured.
“The stars aligned,” Kauffman said, using a similar turn of phrase to sum up the creation of Friends. She and writing partner David Crane had just come off Dream On and insisted their next project be an ensemble cast. They decided to use the oldest writer's trick there is — to write what they knew — and created a story about their lives in New York post-college. Simultaneously, Littlefield, who spent his mornings studying the viewing patterns of 20-somethings in major markets, became curious about the lifestyles of young people in big cities. When the Friends pitch came in, it matched his sensibilities perfectly.
“The miracle,” Burrows observed, “was that those [Friends] kids were all available at the end of pilot season.” In fact, it took some wrangling to get both Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston on board, but fortunately for Kauffman, their other gigs fell through. Kauffman noted that the first time the six cast members took their places together for a scene in Central Perk, her hair stood up. “I knew something magical was happening,” she said. It was as if everything fell perfectly into place.
Conversely, nothing about the beginnings of ER made sense. The original script, by Michael Crichton, was 20 years old and 160-some pages long. It read more like a movie, and was “all over the place,” Littlefield said. NBC was accused of “star-fucking,” he continued, because Crichton and Steven Spielberg were involved. Still, producer John Wells found a way to shape it into a two-hour pilot, which, although uncommon, tested astonishingly high with audiences. Unlike Friends, nothing about ER originally fell into place, yet the show boomed just the same.
The momentum of those two shows, coupled with that of Seinfeld and Frasier, allowed NBC to take the ultimate Must-See TV risk in 1998, which was including Will & Grace, a show that featured a gay central character, in the lineup. In the '90s, Littlefield explained, NBC was in a 50-channel universe, and although that's small compared to today's seemingly infinite choices, at the time, it wasn't. The network began to think seriously about defining its identify. What they decided, Littlefield explained, was that “we were the network that was supposed to reflect the world around us.” Though NBC feared backlash, “Not including Will & Grace would have seemed like an omission,” Littlefield said.
“Lightning in a bottle,” it seems, is not something you create as much as capture. As Littlefield observed, television's water cooler has moved from its literal form to blogs and social networking. It's instant instead of next day, which in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. Still, says Littlefield, “This age will never be repeated, because the world changed.”