Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Remembering The Era of "Must See TV"

Top of the Rock
(Pic by Kevin Parry Photography)

I first started covering the TV business in 1995, right after graduating from college -- and right at the start of NBC's 1990s "Must See TV" heyday. NBC was enjoying the fruits of a remarkable development season that yielded "ER" and "Friends," which joined a lineup that also included "Seinfeld" and "Frasier." Later, "Will & Grace" would join that schedule.

As I wrote stories every week about NBC's ratings juggernaut, the Peacock network's ratings advantage, particularly on Thursday nights, seemed unreal. In fact, the other networks pretty much rolled over and played dead on Thursdays for several of those years. Warren Littlefield, who headed up NBC Entertainment when he and his team built that powerful schedule, just wrote a book about those heady days. "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV" is a fun read – a nostalgic look back at the days before the networks were managing for margins and picking up shows with a 1 rating in the demo.

Top of the Rock
David Nevins, me, Noah Wyle, Warren Littlefield, Marta Kauffman and James Burrows

On Monday I moderated a panel at the Paley Center featuring Littlefield; master TV director Jimmy Burrows (whose countless credits include "Cheers" and "Will & Grace"); "Friends" co-creator Marta Kauffman; "ER" star Noah Wyle; and former NBC exec David Nevins, now the entertainment president at Showtime. We chatted about the birth of "Friends," "ER" and "Will & Grace" and what it was like to launch those shows. We also talked about Burrows' knack as the "pilot whisperer" for directing shows that make it to air, and how shows like "ER" and "Frasier" almost didn't happen.

To prep for Monday night's panel, I combed through my old late-1990s issues of Electronic Media (where I worked during Littlefield's NBC tenure) and went through my own trip down memory lane. Here's my 1998 profile of Burrows:

Top of the Rock

And here's my 1998 profile of "Friends" creators Bright/Kauffman/Crane:

Top of the Rock

Littlefield was shown the door at NBC in late 1998; "Must See TV" itself was finally gone by 2004, the year that "The Apprentice" was given the Thursday 9 p.m. slot.

Since I was moderating, I couldn't take notes, but here's some coverage of the event:

The Futon Critic (Jim Halterman)

L.A. Weekly (Ali Trachta)

For more pics from the event, go here.

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