This is the first edition of Back Pages, our weekly combination reviews/commentary/features book section. Some weeks it will be heavy on reviews, other times we will include author interviews, perhaps commentary and/or news items. Contributions will range across various genres, among them politics, literature, media, arts, and sports.
Top of the Rock – Inside The Rise And Fall of Must See TV
By Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson
A new network television season gets underway in earnest next week, but NBC has already gotten a jump on its competition. Thanks to the London Olympics, which set ratings records for a sporting event occurring outside the continental United States, NBC finally got some good news. But despite the huge audiences they earned for global swimming, gymnastics and track competition, they are expected to finish far behind again in the network competition for shrinking advertiser dollars and disappearing viewer eyeballs.
Last season, the only NBC show that regularly made either the Top 10 or Top 20 was Sunday Night Football. That ended up as the most watched prime time network show, dethroning American Idol. However it couldn’t prop up an otherwise anemic entity, whose only hits were either fading shows old in the tooth like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or reality fare such as The Celebrity Apprentice or The Biggest Loser.
But back in the early ’90s, NBC ruled the network universe. Even though cable hadn’t yet ascended to its present perch, it was starting to make its presence felt. Nevertheless, NBC had a number of prestige shows that garnered both critical acclaim and big audiences. Warren Littlefield started his career as a comedy executive, developing the blueprint for programs that ultimately became The Cosby Show, Golden Girls and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He parlayed the same formula into a hugely successful presidency of NBC, and spent overall 20 years there. His latest book Top of the Rock – Inside The Rise and Fall of Must See TV covers the period between 1993 and 1999 when NBC was clearly alone at the top of the hill. Along with novelist T.R. Pearson, Littlefield recounts the strategies and tactics he used during NBC’s rise, recalling key moments, major events, and principal personalities in the last great network TV period.
Unlike today’s fragmented landscape, where shows can be deemed successes with less than a fourth of what networks used to routinely draw, NBC’s shows under Littlefield totally dominated entire evenings. The list of NBC giants resembled a broadcasting Hall of Fame lineup. Despite awful test results, Littlefield gave the go-ahead to a “show about nothing.” It evolved into Seinfeld, TV Guide’s choice as the greatest sitcom of all time. He took a chance on Kelsey Grammer when he was homeless and living in his car. Grammer’s character Dr. Frasier Crane became a major contributor to Cheers, and the star of Frasier. The book’s full of similar episodes where Littlefield either ignored conventional wisdom with regard to casting and development, or went against the wishes of superiors and took chances on actors other networks either missed or let languish such as Jennifer Aniston.
Littlefield didn’t obsess on demographics, nor rely on focus groups. He felt a quality program needed time to find an audience, and patience was a virtue rather than a quick trigger. With dramas such as Law & Order or ER, he let producers take chances with ambitious themes and controversial storylines. With comedies he emphasized characters and ensembles over stunts and gimmicks, even on shows that were built off them like Seinfeld. At one point NBC’s Thursday night lineup was generating more revenue than every other night of programming on anyone’s network.
Unfortunately, as with all good things, Littlefield’s reign eventually came to an end. His demise in late 1998 happened like it usually does in a corporate environment. He lost a power struggle with Don Ohlmeyer, then considered a programming genius prior to his downfall due to alcohol problems. Ironically, the show that got him fired, The West Wing, became one of NBC’s last huge hits. Ohlmeyer considered it elitist drivel, while Littlefield felt it was the perfect blend of sophistication and quirkiness that had always characterized NBC’s best programs. While the show survived, Littlefield got canned. His tenure ended just as Seinfeld, the show he’d championed when no one else believed in it, was also departing. Over his final three years NBC generated $6.5 billion in prime-time advertising. They beat their combined competition by more than 60 percent on Thursdays in his final season as president.
Littlefield has had his revenge. Though NBC remained number one until 2004, it’s been in fourth place ever since. During the recent sale to Comcast, NBC had a projected value of $0 (that’s zero) dollars, with estimated annual losses of $600 million. The crew who’ve taken over since his firing collectively turned NBC into a joke. Its signature show now is probably The Voice, another of the numerous singing competitions. The days of ER, The Cosby Show, Cheers and Seinfeld are gone, but all those programs are fondly remembered.
Top of the Rock documents the last stand for quality network TV, featuring shows that took creative chances, yet still earned excellent ratings. These days, CBS rules with predictable fare. Fox goes for the 18-49 demographic via animation and sports. ABC works the nighttime soap opera market, and the CW skews younger and younger. NBC’s current head Bob Greenblatt once worked for Showtime, and Comcast desperately hopes he’ll unearth another Dexter for them. If he does, maybe he’ll get treated better than the man who once made them both profitable and acclaimed.
Dan Rather: Rather Outspoken – My Life In The News
By Dan Rather with Digby Diehl
(Grand Central Publishing)
For decades CBS News was rightly considered the gold standard of broadcast journalism. They had exceptional anchors and reporters, distinguished, experienced types who weren’t concerned with image or popularity, just accuracy and thorough information. Dan Rather was part of that corps, a dedicated newsman who got his start working local radio in Texas, and covered everything from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War while advancing up the CBS ladder until he reached the very top, replacing the great Walter Cronkite as anchor of The CBS Evening News.
But after nearly five decades with the company, Rather found himself on the other end of a story. His network tenure ended in disgrace, as a story he anchored and reported about George W. Bush and the Texas Air National Guard triggered a national controversy. Rather maintained that Bush did not serve in the guard and that records claiming he did were fabricated. Months after the initial firestorm, after a commission headed by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh concluded serious errors in reporting had occurred, Rather’s 40-year CBS career was over.
Rather Outspoken, co-written with prolific writer and Los Angeles Times Book Review founding editor Digby Diehl, devotes 60 plus pages to a fierce defense of the Bush report. Rather’s also protective of the people who compiled it, and unapologetic for his role in the story. He accuses CBS news executives of caving in to right-wing pressure, and offers point-by-point refutations of the various charges made regarding it. Rather also eviscerates CBS for allegedly allowing a non-news type (programming head Les Moonves) to dictate news policy and cites several individuals for negligence, cowardice and incompetence. Since Rather Outspoken was published, a number of them, including Moonves, Andrew Heyward and Sumner Redstone (Viacom executive) have responded in length to specific charges made here by Rather. Their denials can be found at various online sites, but whether you believe them or Rather, this makes it very clear just how much furor this story generated.
But the best portions of Rather Unspoken aren’t the harsh attacks on CBS, or his dismissive attitude toward the likes of Katie Couric (which come across rather mean-spirited, a motivation he’s angrily denied during on-air interviews). They’re his trips down memory lane. He gives you a glimpse of what it was like contending with Southern lawmen across picket lines, or conversing with the troops in Vietnam. Rather wasn’t content to anchor the news from the safe haven of a studio. He constantly put his life at risk for a story, actions that didn’t always make him popular with Jeannie, his long suffering wife of 55 years.
Rather also talks in far more upbeat fashion about his latest career move, working for the mercurial Mark Cuban and his HDNET News operation. Rather’s back doing investigative reporting though now in his ’80s. He’s still circling the globe in search of stories and people no one else will touch or interview. He’s earned Emmy awards for pieces on money laundering by Lloyds TSB, counterfeit drug smuggling in China, and childhood prostitution in Portland, Ore.
Dan Rather doesn’t mind being viewed as “old school,” or “out-of-date,” though he’s mastered such modern devices as the Internet and mobile tablets. What he hates with a passion is what he feels corporations have done to broadcast journalism. If you agree network news has hit bottom, you’ll enjoy Rather Outspoken.