It’s no secret that I love TV. LOVE IT. I know that as a book nerd I’m supposed to snottily claim that I only watch HBO or that I don’t even own a TV or whatever, but screw it. I make no apologies for the many hours I spend in front of my TV and I think the DVR is the greatest invention since, I don’t know, fire. I used to just enjoy watching it, but ever since I started working in an industry that also has to balance the creative side with the business side, I’ve been fascinated with the behind the scenes machinations of the entertainment industry. So I basically had to read Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by former NBC president Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson, an oral history of the shows that dominated my teenage years in the 90s. Well not including 90210, but that was on Fox so it doesn’t really fit the theme.
Littlefield and Pearson (well in all likelihood, mostly Pearson) interviewed dozens of actors, directors, writers, producers, and network executives to get the dirt on how the top shows of the Must See TV era on NBC were developed. I’m always fascinated by oral histories because instead of one author saying, “here is what happened,” you get a bunch of different people’s versions of what happened, and people often see the same events differently. And yes, there is an author (usually a journalist acting as cultural anthropologist) shaping the interviews into a cohesive narrative, but it’s still up to the reader to come to their own conclusions about what truly happened. This is the first oral history that I have read where the person shaping the narrative as a whole is actually a key participant in the story. There are times when Warren Littlefield seems to be either directly responding to or setting up someone else’s quote. It’s almost like a hybrid of the memoir and oral history genres and I’d really love to learn more about how they put the book together.
And now a few of my favorite tidbits from the book:
- In most of the oral histories I’ve read, there seems to be one person that everyone else interviewed gleefully trashes. The SNL book has Chevy Chase, the ESPN book has Keith Olbermann, and this book has Don Ohlmeyer, former President of NBC West Coast operations. He’s described as a smart businessman and charismatic guy, but comes across in their stories as a drunk buffoon. Ohlmeyer was not actually interviewed for the book (the co-author explained why in the comments of Alan Sepinwall’s review), but considering that Littlefield was fired instead of Ohlmeyer, I can’t say I blame him.
- It was Littlefield’s brainstorm to cut back shows’ running time in favor of more ads. BOO!
- Seinfeld was originally run out by the late night and specials department of NBC because they didn’t have any room in the budget in the regular comedy department.
- David Schwimmer kind of comes off as a douche. He goes on and on about his theater company and how he kept telling the rest of the cast that they had to act like a union and negotiate together. Which turned out to be very smart, but do you have to be so pretentious about it?
- Littlefield threatened to cancel Law and Order after the third season unless Dick Wolf added a female character.
- There was a LOT of thought put into Benton’s fist pump in the pilot (and opening credits) of ER. Who knew? Also, Noah Wyle had his first three-way after the first ER presentation at the up fronts. Random.
- Despite what the subtitle suggests, there’s not actually a lot about the fall of Must See TV. The explanation seems to be that Warren Littlefield was fired and everyone after him ruined everything, especially Jeff Zucker. And I guess the way people watch television has changed. But mostly that other thing. I will say though that if NBC was in better shape, then we would only have gotten a handful of episodes of Chuck, The Office, Parks and Rec, and Community, and that would have been tragic.
There are times when it gets a little too inside baseball and there were some stories that I, as a TV junkie, had already heard, but overall I think it’s a good read. There are lots of great behind the scenes gossip and gives the average TV watcher a better idea of how much work (and ego) goes into developing and making a successful TV show. I think pop culture junkies will really enjoy this book.
And in conclusion, that’s not even a word!