Tuesday, July 10, 2012
"TOP OF THE ROCK"! NBC's FAILURES! A CLOSER LOOK IN THE LIGHT OF WARREN LITTLEFIELD'S BOOK, AND HOW THEY CAN TURN IT AROUND!
I think it's no secret that network television, as a whole, sucks. In some ways, it always, but hardly ever this much, and across the board. I've been pondering all the supposed reasons why for awhile, and while I don't think I have a clear answer, a good place to look is the recent, decade-long downfall of NBC. I recently finished reading "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of 'Must See TV'", the book by former NBC President Warren Littlefield, in which he gives a detailed history through multiple first-hand accounts of NBC in the '80s and particularly the '90s, when NBC ruled the ratings, getting numbers that are pretty much impossible today, outside of a Super Bowl, every week, as well as critical-acclaim and numerous awards. It was an enjoyable look back at what I still consider my favorite network. Yeah, despite the heavy amount of crap on there now, when flipping channels, the first channel I almost always go to, to find out what's on TV, is NBC, even though nowadays, it's only really watchable on Thursday nights, which is really still, easily the best night on TV, it typically finishes a distant third, at best to CBS and FOX in the ratings. Littlefield started working at NBC with "Cheers". When he took over as President, he took a chance on "Seinfeld". The lineups on NBC are just incomparable to anything today. In the '80s, their Thursday Night was "The Cosby Show," at 8, "Family Ties," at 8:30, "Cheers," at 9, "Night Court at 9:30, and "Hill Street Blues," at 10. You can't get a quality lineup like that, on HBO, and on top of that, they had "The Golden Girls," "A Different World," "Empty Nest,"... and in the '90s, it got better. "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Frasier," "Wings," "ER", The "Law & Order" franchise, "Mad About You," "3rd Rock From the Sun," "Will & Grace," "Just Shoot Me," "Suddenly Susan,". If you ask me, I'll take a random episode of "Caroline in the City," over anything on Tuesday night on Network TV, and that might've been, their 25th, best show. (Hell, I'll take "Alf," right now, which was also, on NBC) They once cancelled "The Single Guy," when it was in the Top 10 in ratings, something no network, would dare do now. There's some wonderful tales that Littlefield tells in the book, and if you ever want to know a little bit about being a successful network President, their probably isn't too many better sources around, but I don't really want to write a book review. It's the last chapter of the book that's been sticking with me, since I finished reading it. It goes over a couple things, and makes some insucient points. It begins with a fight between Littlefield, and Don Ohlemeyer, who was also one of NBC's top executives at the time. It was presumed to many outside of the network that they were the ones behind the success of "Must See TV," but Littlefield, and many others, that Littlefield was the one who deserved the majority of the success and Ohlemeyer seems to be portrayed often as a no-nothing drunk, who seemed to be practically wrong on everything from "ER," which he thought would never last, (Last almost 20 years) to "The Tortellis". (If you don't remember that "Cheers" spin-off, consider yourself blessed.) He however, had the Hollywood connections and personality that was more charismatic as a face of the company. They're last fight, ended with Don refusing originally to give a series committment, to John Wells, who had been the producer/showrunner for "ER," and "Third Watch," after thinking the script was too elitist to be popular. (The script in question, became "The West Wing"). Since then, the networks's gone through a revolving door of network Presidents, the most notorious of which is Jeff Zucker, and since 2004, when "Friends," and "Frasier," went off the air, the ratings have steadily fallen since, and although, there's some exceptions to their quality like "30 Rock," and "The Office," which have headlined their Thursday nights up 'til now, Zucker was the one, who put "The Apprentice," on Thursday nights, and made sure that NBC's previous quality would go the way of "The Biggest Loser", and I actually mean the TV show, but you can probably call that NBC's ratings as well. It's shows like that, that are actually popular and big for the network(s), that really have led to the decline in broadcast television. I think it's across the board, but NBC, is the prime example, and the quotes that Littlefield uses in the final chapters are haunting and scary predictors of the future of network television.
"When I go in and pitch shows, and they're laughing and the get the characters, and the guy says to me, 'What happens in season four?' I say, "I renegotiate for more money, because apparently we're in season four." That's a great problem to have. Why not figure it out when you get there? I can't tell you how many times people have told me, 'This is so good. It's not for us."---Jason Alexander
"When Zucker started making noises about canceling "Southland" in 2009, I called him up and said, 'Jeff, don't do it. You're not in aposition to cancel shows that ABC and TNT both want. They're going to put it on the air, and it'll be terrible for you. Just the PR of it is terrible in the creative community. You're already the fourth or fifth place people pitch anything. Even if "Southland," doesn't work, at least it looks like an interesting television show." He just doesn't get it. He had no idea when he took over, and he had too much ego to admit that he didn't know. --John Wells
"We recently wrote a show about a strong woman. They said it's too alienating, and we don't want an older woman at the center of the show. It was an Auntie Mame story. I asked the executive, "Did you like it?" He said, "Yeah." I asked, "Well, what makes you think nobody else will?"--David Kohan
There's a few other quotes from the book I wanted to showcase, but I would be here all week writing them out. It's startling to me to see this pointed out, the sudden shifts in the way that networks are run now. I had feelings and suspicions about these for awhile, but to have, actual people in the rooms talking about it, from both sides, former executives and from creative, it's fairly disheartening. I love television, as Jimmy Fallon declared when he hosted the Emmys a couple years ago. I don't mean that satirically either, I really do. There are times when I remember that, usually it involves watching old reruns of TV shows. "The Dick Van Dyke Show," a lot. Recently, "Get Smart," "WKRP in Cincinnati", and "All in the Family," have helped me remember how great television can be. Last night, I was sitting in my office watching something stupid on youtube, and listening to the TV in the other room. I wasn't watching, I was listening, to "Hell's Kitchen." It wasn't the best show on that night, that goes to "How I Met Your Mother," on CBS (Or I presume it was, I didn't check actually, but if they're smart there I'd have put it on), but it was a rerun, and I had seen it already. I occasionally came out and check in on "Hell's Kitchen," but I really didn't care that much, I was waiting to kill time before "Masterchef," which is the third-best reality-competition show on TV, after "Top Chef," which is on Bravo, which I don't get, and "Iron Chef America," which now that I think about it, I actually don't know if that's still on the air. Don't go me wrong, "Masterchef," is actually pretty good, easily the best thing Gordon Ramsey's doing on TV, but it still feels like I'm settling for something, and I shouldn't have to settle. I don't want to pick the show that I, don't like the least; I want to watch something that's actually good, that I want to see on TV, and am willing to come home early and watch it, even if I know I can always see it again online the next day.
That should be the goal now. Okay, I can't fully play "Guest Network President," right now, 'cause I don't know everything the network(s) have to choose from to fill their lineup(s), but if I'm coming into NBC right now, I'm doing two things right away. The first is, cancelling "The Apprentice," and "The Biggest Loser". Now, I'm actually not opposed to reality television, especially when it's good. It's written about my appreciation for "The Voice," numerous times on this blog, which is on NBC (and from what I can tell, came on and was greenlighted, after/around the time Jeff Zucker left, and while I don't know how much he had to do with the show, I think it's telling) they're basically hooked themselves into these shows, and continue to do so, and these should not be shows that centerpiece the network. They're also the biggest relics of Zucker's term, and if you really want to turn over a new leaf, you gotta get rid of the old tree. Plus, they're pretty bad shows anyway, so just get rid of them. Now, it's not gonna be easy filling that time right away. That might mean, an extra season of "Whitney," that shouldn't exist, but, in the longrun, you're going in the right direction. (I also think that, like a flagship comedy or drama series, a network should really have, only one, flagship reality show. They can have more, and FOX, to their credit, is good at this. "American Idol," is FOX, but also have the Gordon Ramsey's shows, and they still have "Cops," and all these experimental programs they always put on, but they're on under the "American Idol," flagship, and I would say, "The Voice," can do that for NBC.) Now, the next thing I'd do, is change the goal of the network. Not the mission statement, but in terms of programming, here's the state of mind they need to be in: "To get people to start asking "What's on NBC?" as opposed to "What's on TV?" I think that's a great place to start. That's what the network was in the '80s and '90s. They called it "Must See TV," I don't know if it's a great idea to bring that back, although, the Night of Bests, idea is genius, but to have so much, quality programming, across genres, that when you tune on the TV, the first thing you do, is see what's on NBC. That, is a tough goal, and it's not necessarily a marketing thing, although that's part of it, but it's a way of looking at new pilots, and determining what shows to put on. Also, unlike in the past, there's so many options now, hundreds of TV channels, plus the internet for entertainment, the TV landscape isn't what it used to be anyway. You're never gonna get the ratings of the past, it's not possible. But, if you put out as much quality programming as you can, and consistently put it out, you might start winning a few nights or two, and people are gonna start, checking the channel to see what's on. HBO did this, we always check what's on HBO now, "It's not TV, it's HBO," that was brilliant, and a similar thing can happen on NBC. It can happen on all the broadcast networks if they really want it too.
It's still a long process, but once you're heading in the right direction, and keep it that way, the ratings should come eventually. That's the other thing, you need, longterm goals as a network president. The brand of the network is important, and you can't simply be caring about, what next year's schedule's gonna look like. I've noticed that NBC has slowly improved. In the last two years, Bob Greenblatt, who's the current NBC President, who came over in the Comcast buyout, from Showtime, where he was an executive, and he also produced "Six Feet Under," previously, has started to slowly make some of these changes. There's Wednesday night sitcoms on NBC, instead of more reality programming, they're using "The Voice," well as a flagship reality show, plus with "Smash," which he brough over from Showtime originally, also to some extent with "Grimm" he's making some moves towards more high-end, quality programming on NBC. It's a slow build though. NBC isn't the place their bringing their scripts first right now, and that's gonna take some time, but once they start developing and basing their schedule around good shows, viewers looking for good television will start to go up. It's tempting to go off this. "The Biggest Loser," is fairly cheap to produce, and it's a ratings winner, it's easy to see why they'd give in and bring it back again, but, they've done it before. They can do it again. Hopefully, they will.