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TELEVISION: STILL STANDING IN BURBANK

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

NETWORK EXECUTIVES ARE USED to being the butt of jokes, but few have endured the sort of abuse Warren Littlefield has. David Letterman loved to flash photos of the NBC programming chief on his show and make cruel remarks. In The Late Shift, HBO’s recent movie about the late-night battle, Littlefield comes across as the arch network dunderhead, the guy who lost Letterman to CBS. In one scene, Littlefield (played as a smarmy nebbish by Bob Balaban) is so surprised by a phone call from Jay Leno that he races out of the toilet in his boxers, with his pants around his ankles.

Unfair? The real Littlefield is more earnest preppy than pantsless nebbish, a boyish executive with a neatly trimmed beard. One thing his 21 years in the TV business have taught him is that it doesn’t pay to be a sourpuss. He claims he used to “crack up” at Letterman’s on-air gibes, even when Letterman went so far as to smash a Tiffany candy dish Littlefield had given him as a gift. As for the Late Shift portrayal, Littlefield laughs it off, though he points out that “I don’t wear boxer shorts. I wear briefs.” He shrugs, “But it’s television.”

In the matter of late night, it turns out that Littlefield wasn’t so dumb after all. NBC may have had some last-minute qualms that Leno would be a big-chinned albatross, but his Tonight Show is now whipping Letterman soundly in the ratings. As for the rest of NBC’s fortunes, Littlefield, 43, has confounded critics, who regarded him as something of an empty suit–a protege of NBC programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff who inherited Tartikoff’s No. 1 schedule in 1990 and quickly let it slide to third place. Littlefield has not only kept his job for nearly six years–an eternity in his profession–but has masterminded NBC’s surprising rebound to No. 1 this season. The TV industry is coming to a startling realization: Warren Littlefield may be the smartest programmer in the business. In fact, one of his top lieutenants, Jamie McDermott, is reportedly being wooed by ABC to head its programming department.

When NBC’s top-rated block of Thursday night sitcoms (The Cosby Show, Cheers) began to fall apart in the early ’90s, it was Littlefield who shrewdly remade the night, adding new hits like Seinfeld and Friends and capping it off with ER, the medical drama that is now TV’s No. 1 show. It was Littlefield who found himself “laughing out loud” at a quirky comedy pilot called Third Rock from the Sun that was first brought to ABC; he put it on NBC in January and got credit for discovering the only bona fide new hit of the season. And it was Littlefield who took a big risk last season by moving Frasier, a hit on Thursday night, to Tuesday opposite ABC’s powerhouse Home Improvement. Frasier is now in the Top 10, and NBC has taken control of another night. “Without the Frasier Tuesday move, we’re not No. 1,” says Littlefield. “Simple as that.”

The line between a programming genius and someone headed out the door for a station manager’s job in Reno is, of course, notoriously indistinct. And Littlefield has had his share of bad ideas (remember Madman of the People?). Kevin Bright, an executive producer of Friends, recalls that Littlefield early on thought the series needed an older regular to counterbalance the twentysomething stars. The producers disagreed. “Another network executive might have said, ‘No! I want this older character.’ But Warren trusted our instincts and went with us.”

A New Jersey native, Littlefield worked as a truck driver and foreman of a concrete-mixing crew before getting into TV. He joined NBC in comedy development in 1979, worked his way up and succeeded the charismatic Tartikoff as president of NBC Entertainment 12 years later when Tartikoff left to become chairman of Paramount Pictures.

NBC was dominant in the ratings then, but morale was falling: many of its hits (Cosby, The Golden Girls, L.A. Law) were past their prime, and Littlefield admits he didn’t move fast enough to make changes. When Don Ohlmeyer, a former NBC Sports exec, was brought in to oversee the network’s entertainment division in 1993, many figured Littlefield would get the ax. Yet he survived–even through the dark days when NBC was being derided for having lost Letterman, who initially drew great ratings on CBS. “The scariest thing was when Dave came on that first year,” he says. “I really had to question all of my instincts.” He attributes the late-night turnaround to his having pushed Leno to evolve “from a talk show to a comedy hour.”

Now Littlefield’s days of anonymity–and buffoonery–may be over. Last month he drew a packed auditorium when he spoke at the Harvard Business School. And when he was rushing down New York City’s Madison Avenue not long ago, a homeless man greeted him by name. Just what a network programmer longs for: a mass audience. –Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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