The DVR and online video streaming of your favorite shows has turned Must See TV into Must See When I Get Around to It. But Warren Littlefield, former entertainment president of NBC, has reminded us of what was possible not so long ago. His new book, Top of The Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV (May 1, Doubleday), recounts his successful run at the network and the inside stories of the shows that made it happen: Friends, Frasier, Mad About You, Seinfeld, Will & Grace and ER.
"We're reminded far too often how TV unites us in crisis," Littlefield tells TV Guide Magazine. "Thursday night's Must See TV united us in celebration. At its height, 75 million Americans watched part of it. They wanted to be part of that national conversation that was at the watercooler at work on Friday." Now, TV watercooler chatter prompts some to hold their hands over their ears to block out spoilers as technology has forever altered the viewing experience. "We live in an age of choice," Littlefield says. "[My book] is about the moment in time when one network, one night, brought viewers together."
Littlefield's Must See TV lineup was born out of crisis. The book opens with how Whoopi Goldberg talked Ted Danson (they were the celebrity odd couple of the early 1990s) into quitting Cheers, NBC's top-rated show. Looking to milk as much as it could out of Cheers' final season, the network ran repeat episodes Thursday at 8pm — when Fox was cleaning up with The Simpsons — and found there was an audience for sophisticated adult comedy in what had been known as "the family hour."
For the rest of the decade, NBC developed shows about urban young adults at work and at play. Using interviews with producers, cast members and his former NBC colleagues, Littlefield tells of the obstacles the programs faced before becoming pop-culture juggernauts. Seinfeld was considered too Jewish. ER was too gory. One NBC executive believed Monica was too much of a slut in the Friends pilot. A show about a woman's platonic friendship with a gay man? "The feeling from my bosses was this is not territory you can play in," says Littlefield of the initial reaction to Will & Grace.
Those who were a part of the Must See TV era appreciate the influence they had. "It's pretty cool for me to think that I got one of the last great rides on the television rocket where you could really control the dialogue of the country," said Jerry Seinfeld, whose show was turning out catchphrases each week.
Are viewers worse off now that those days have passed? Littlefield, currently a producer, says there is plenty of quality television on today: "The current programs have an incredible range and great quality. They're just spread out over a 200-channel universe."