Warren Littlefield's NBC a far different era

Associated Press Modified: May 7, 2012 at 8:00 am •  Published: May 7, 2012

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."