Warren Littlefield worked under NBC chairman and CEO Grant Tinker, who died last night at age 90. He rose to become NBC Entertainment president from 1990-98 during his two decades at the network amidst its Must See TV era; shows under Littlefield’s watch included Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, Mad About You, Will & Grace, Law & Order, ER and Homicide: Life on the Street. His 2012 book Top of the Rock about his NBC tenure was a New York Times bestseller.
In a three-network world in the 1980s where the lack of competition guaranteed success, NBC had little of it. Enter Grant Tinker with a square jaw and golden tan look that any casting director would say, “You asked for power and success, here’s the guy.” But he was so much more. He helped NBC find its soul.
We were young execs led by the instincts of Brandon Tartikoff, but it was Grant’s guiding light that brought out the brilliance in Brandon. Grant helped us executive kids to understand that the audience was not an alien being that we should be guessing about what they might want to watch. He asked us to look at ourselves and find ideas from intelligent, passionate writers and filmmakers that would make us race down the 101 Freeway to our homes to get to our television sets. He encouraged us to respect the audience because they had the capacity to handle dramatic complexity. He raised the bar.
Grant also would remind us if we wanted to write, produce or direct that we should do that, but not while we still worked as execs at NBC. It was his way of saying, get in business with good people and don’t get in their way. Guide, but don’t try to do the jobs that you hired them to do.
Early on after Grant arrived at NBC, he called me down to his office. I was a VP in comedy development and current comedy and this was a big deal being called into the chairman’s office. He stood at his desk — he was decades ahead of the trend to have standing workstations — and was reviewing the weekly ratings ranking report. He was chewing gum and asked me, “Do you have a warm winter coat?”
Huh, what? I thought, we’re living in SoCal, why would I need one?
He then explained: “It’s going to be a mighty cold winter for you. I’ve seen the shows on our lineup — there’s a reason we have none in the top 10 or even top 20. It’s going to be very cold for you.”
I wondered if this is how network execs got fired? Then he said, “Find better shows. Work with better people. You’ll enjoy working here much more, and you won’t need that coat.”
That was Grant Tinker. No screaming, no firing, a dose of reality, a waspish sense of humor and words to live by.
“Do you have anything better?”
“You like it, right?”
“I think the discussion is over.”
Cheers of course went on to be the award-winning tentpole of our Thursday night schedule for the next decade.
Slowly, under Grant we began to understand his message and we realized that the seeds of who we must be, led by shows like Hill Street Blues and Cheers would be the key to our record-breaking success in the ’80s and critical lessons I would learn for the NBC Must See renaissance in the ’90s.
Thank you, Grant. We never could have achieved any of that without you.
Littlefield is currently executive producer of FX’s Fargo, which is in production on Season 3, and also on Hulu and MGM’s upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale.