Four episodes of Seinfeld got made at at the cost of a Bob Hope birthday special, Will & Grace got developed despite concerns about the gay lead character on the part of NBC’s West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, John Wells carved the ER pilot out of an old Michael Crichton script with decades out of date medical references.
These and other stories emerged when a bunch of industry bigwigs reminisced about their misspent youth at NBC, in the network’s halcyon Must See TV days, aka the 90’s, at an HRTS lunch.
Warren Littlefield, who rose to become president of the network’s entertainment division, and is now
executive producer of FX’s Fargo and HULU’s The Handmaid’s Tale, graciously credited industry titans Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker with creating an environment in which the panelists could succeed. Tinker, he said, “didn’t pontificate a lot but one of the things he told us…Just put on shows you would watch.” Tartikoff, he said, instilled in them the sense that this was the greatest game they would ever get to play. “We held on to what they gave us,” he said.
They did not talk about those two men much after that. They did, however, talk a lot about “Don.” They did not like Don. They never mentioned Don by his full name: Don Ohlmeyer. “That dude was scary,” said John Landgraf, not joking. Landgraf now is CEO of FX Networks.
“Don” brought them together, in their dislike of Don. “In working for Don, it united us,” Littlefield said. “We had a tough boss we all had to work for. If you really believed in something you’d better stand up and fight for it.”
Like the Will & Grace pilot which, according to the execs on stage, was the subject of heated discussion at the end of one of their daily 2:30 PM senior management meetings in “Don’s” outer office. Don seemed dubious about the project. Don’s reaction, as described during the panel: “What fucking world do you live in where you think America wants to watch” a show about a friendship between a straight woman and her gay male best friend?
To which Littlefield responded: “Yeah, but it’s funny,” David Nevins recalled, approvingly. Nevins now is President/CEO of Showtime Networks.
When they shot the pilot, out in The Valley, the studio audience of about 250 reacted with wild enthusiasm, according to the panelists – who included Big Beach Head of TV Robin Schwartz; TNT/TBS President and Turner Entertainment Networks CEO Kevin Reilly, and Freeform EVP Programming Karey Burke.
Littlefield said he knew he had a hit, reacting thusly: “This show is embraced by real people! Who live in The Valley! We know what we’re doing!”
When it was screened for NBC powers that be in New York, CEO Bob Wright called it was the best thing NBC had ever had its name on, the panelists said. “I give him a lot of credit” for that, Nevins added.
(NBC last month announced it is bringing back the series, which ended its first run on the network in 2006).
Seinfeld got off to an even rockier start. Among the internecine complaints about the show: the characters were “losers” and the show “too Jew-y,” panelists recalled. Littlefield said it was “probably the lowest testing pilot in the history of NBC.”
“But the development team loved it, so they scraped together resources to make four episodes by scrapping a Bob Hope birthday special. Seinfeld responded to the news asking if any show in the history of television had ever succeeded with a four-episode order.
You can never go wrong asking someone who worked at NBC in that era to talk about how ER got on the
air. Old Michael Crichton script dusted off when he was hot off Jurassic Park, then Warner Bros. TV chief Leslie Moonves, who produced the show, insisting it was the best testing pilot in history; “Don” wanted to slow down the show’s pace, so they tried to keep him out of notes meetings.
Panel moderator and WME/IMG founding partner Rick Rosen said some unnamed exec with whom he spoke, who used to be at Warner Bros. TV and now is not, said NBC’s scheduling hotshot Preston Beckman wanted to put it on Friday nights.
“Leslie?” Beckman shot back. Rosen wouldn’t say.
“Leslie — fuck him,” Beckman joked, reminding us how much this industry lost when Beckman retired from active duty at Fox, to which he migrated after parting company with NBC; he’s now chairman of The Beckman Group, LLC.
Despite all the great testing, NBC execs were nervous about ER because it was going head-to-head with CBS’s much buzzier new medical drama Chicago Hope. One day, Nevins said, they found out CBS’s show would include a storyline in which doctors put a baboon heart into a little baby. Reaction within the halls of NBC HQ, Nevin said: “Holy Shit! They’re going to transfer a baboon heart into a little baby! They’re going to kick our ass!”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Nevins remembered fondly.