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Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV

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Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, ER, Cheers, Law & Order, Will & Grace…Here is the funny, splashy, irresistible insiders’ account of the greatest era in television history -- told by the actors, writers, directors, producers, and the network executives who made it happen…and watched it all fall apart.

Warren Littlefield was the NBC President of Entertainment who oversaw the Peacock Network’s rise from also-ran to a division that generated a billion dollars in profitsIn this fast-paced and exceptionally entertaining oral history, Littlefield and NBC luminaries including Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Kelsey Grammer, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, Julianna Marguiles, Anthony Edwards, Noah Wylie, Debra Messing, Jack Welch, Jimmy Burrows, Helen Hunt, and Dick Wolf vividly recapture the incredible era of Must See TV.

From 1993 through 1998, NBC exploded every conventional notion of what a broadcast network could accomplish with the greatest prime-time line-up in television history. On Thursday nights, a cavalcade of groundbreaking comedies and dramas streamed into homes, attracting a staggering 75 million viewers and generating more revenue than all other six nights of programming combined. The road to success, however, was a rocky one. How do you turn a show like Seinfeld, one of the lowest testing pilots of all time, into a hit when the network overlords are constantly warring, or worse, drowning in a bottle of vodka?   

Top of the Rock
is an addictively readable account of the risky business decisions, creative passion, and leaps of faith that made Must See TV possible. Chock full of delicious behind-the-scenes anecdotes that run the gamut from hilarious casting and programming ploys to petty jealousies and drug interventions, you’re in for a juicy, unputdownable read.

326 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2012

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Warren Littlefield

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 342 reviews
Profile Image for RandomAnthony.
394 reviews111 followers
June 18, 2012
This oral history literary format interests me. The first book I remember reading in the “brief bits of interviews cut together to tell a story” format was Please Kill Me. Next came the west coast version of the same, We Got The Neutron Bomb. A while back I read The Replacements history, all interviews, if my memory serves me well, then earlier this spring the extensive ESPN history. Last week I read another oral history, this one from the “Must See TV” era.

Okay, first, background knowledge. If you're under, oh, thirty, maybe, you might never have heard this “Must See TV” verbiage. For a stretch of the nineties NBC's Thursday night lineup pulled down massive ratings. This was before you could DVR shows, so if you wanted to see the programs outside of their original broadcast you had to program your VCR to record them. VCRs were kind of a pain in the ass. You had to push, like, seven or eight buttons instead of today's two, line up the times, turn your to channel 3, and probably other steps I'm forgetting. Also, cable television was just penetrating into the American marketplace; cable wasn't a given in the average living room. So NBC, CBS, and ABC were major players because you didn't have many other televised options. Fox was still new. As my wife and I married in 1994 and were broke until, oh, 96 or 97, we watched a shitload of television, including the shows covered in Top of the Rock. Except for ER. I have never watched ER in my life.

This book's okay for a quick, light, summery read. The Seinfeld section's the best, but that may be because I liked the show while I was lukewarm toward the others. Two facets bothered me in particular:

1) Warren Littlefield, an NBC executive, claims prime and partial authorship of Top of the Rock. Horseshit. I want to know his role. Did he interview everyone? He thanks the transcriber, so I know he didn't sit at his desk with headphones, knocking out the transcripts. So what the hell did he do? I suppose ghostwriting is no better, but those tend to be different and more transparent. Also, all the other interviewees' full names are listed every time they speak. But Warren Littlefield is just “Warren.” That shouldn't bug me as much as it does, maybe. Finally, Warren is comfortable kissing his own butt. I guess that's his right, because he's the author (Whatever!), but this is less of a history of that period, I imagine, as much as a friendly self-love (heh) session.

2) Okay, I can allow that some of these shows may have been innovative, but they were not the great works of art some of the actors/creators seem to remember. Only the lightest jabs (e.g. the Friends “guest star of the week” stretch) earn mention. David Schwimmer sounds pretentious as hell. Will and Grace featured gay characters, yay, but that show sucked. Frasier was...I don't think there's any way you can say Frasier was groundbreaking. Maybe I'm wrong. I like how the interviewees pick on Wings, though. Nobody liked Wings.

I can't recommend this book for anything more than a library checkout or three dollars in the near future when it's featured on Barnes and Noble's remainder tables. I didn't hate it, and I felt a decent wave of positive television nostalgia while reading, but this book could have been more fun and less pompous. Also, Warren Littlefield, you did not write this book! Stinky liar.
Profile Image for Lee Goldberg.
Author 129 books1,556 followers
May 29, 2012
Although I've spent a lot of years as TV writer/producer, I'm still a TV nut who buys just about any behind-the-scenes book written about an individual series or about a network or studio. So I was eager to read Top of The Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield's memoir of his days building the network's iconic 1990s Thursday night schedule, which included hits like Seinfeld, Frasier, and ER. Unfortunately, the book was a disappointment.

The book isn't so much written as it is transcribed... a collection of raw excerpts, snippets really, from interviews conducted with the key actors, writers, producers, agents, schedulers, lawyers, of NBC's 1990s hits... and, of course, quotes from Littlefield himself. He and co-author T.R. Pearson are going for the feel of an oral history, but it comes off as disjointed and scattershot.

There are some interesting facts and anecdotes revealed along the way, but much of the book felt like an excuse for Littlefield to settle a couple of old scores. Way too much of the book involves Littlefield and his former subordinates trashing Kelsey Grammer (described as a difficult actor with bad judgment and a substance abuse problem) and NBC president Don Ohlmeyer (depicting him as a boorish drunk with no creative instincts who contributed nothing to the success of the network's schedule) and touting his creative brilliance. It may all be true, but it still felt like sour grapes and became very tiresome.

All in all, it's worth reading if you're student of TV history, but it's not a very good book... not nearly as fascinating, revealing or well written as Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN, Susanne Daniels' recent memoir of programming the WB, which later merged with its rival UPN to create the CW, a book I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Evan Leach.
460 reviews129 followers
January 13, 2013
From 1982 through 2002 or so, NBC had a primetime lineup that was the envy of its rival networks. “Must See TV” produced hit after hit: Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Frasier, Law & Order, Friends, ER, and Will & Grace (which was less of a hit than its predecessors, but pushed the network TV envelope in significant ways).

img: Cheers

Top of the Rock tells the story of Must See TV from the perspective of Warren Littlefield. Littlefield was president of NBC for most of this era and oversaw the creation of many hit NBC shows. Littlefield is listed as the book’s author, but that’s kind of a stretch. For one thing, the book was a collaborative effort with T.R. Pearson. Also, the book is written in an odd ‘oral history’ kind of format. Basically, this is 300 pages of extended quotations from the actors, directors, producers, executives, and showrunners responsible for NBC’s programming, helpfully organized by Pearson (and maybe Littlefield). The nice thing about this literary style is it gives plenty of room for the principals to talk about their experiences making the shows. There are some very candid interviews with key actors and showrunners that take the reader behind the scenes, and fans of the shows in question will find these interesting. For example, Jason Alexander discusses the one (early) episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza did not appear, and his incensed reaction to it. You can also read about Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson tripping on shrooms.

img: Seinfeld

So the format has some positive qualities. But on the whole it felt pretty damn lazy. This book could have been much, much better if someone had bothered to actually take all of these interview nuggets and use them to write some sort of narrative history of the era. Instead this book just goes show by show, in chronological order, and presents a loosely organized series of extended quotations. That’s really all there is to it, and this format was one big problem I had with the book. The other was the tedious, one-side axe grinding Littlefield uses this book to do, particularly against Don Ohlmeyer. Littlefield was ultimately fired despite his success running NBC, and uses this book as an opportunity to fire back at his opponents. Unfortunately, this all comes across as extremely petty and is an absolute bore to read.

img: Friends

Today, poor NBC is an absolute dumpster fire of a network, bringing in abysmal ratings despite some critically acclaimed shows like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. It’s incredible to think how far its star has fallen in just 10-11 years. Serious fans of NBC’s ‘Must See’ shows will enjoy this book’s occasional behind the scenes insights, but other readers should probably steer clear. 2 stars.
Profile Image for Jessica J..
1,008 reviews1,877 followers
May 11, 2016
An oral history of NBC's prime years in the mid-late 90s, told by various execs and creative folk. I'd give it three and a half stars, if I could. It's interesting for sure -- I am a huge television nerd with a mean nostalgic streak, so this is right up my alley. It read quickly and I definitely enjoyed it, though the oral history format doesn't offer any form of critical analysis to place the events in a larger framework. Something like that probably would have required an additional couple hundred pages, though, so it's probably just as well that this was limited to Warren Littlefield's perspective of his tenure.

It also kind of assumes that the reader is going to know a lot of the history already. For example, in a conversation about casting for "Cheers," someone makes the comment that Nicholas Colasanto was dying when he auditioned but didn't tell anyone at NBC. There's no background or explanation of why this is important -- if you didn't know that Coach had to be written off the show after three seasons, that the back half of the season had to be rearranged to account for his absence, you might be confused. There are countless examples of this, for almost every show featured.

With that in mind, this is likely best for readers who have fond memories of the shows discussed as opposed to those who are too young to remember them in their heyday. I'm straddling that line myself, and I often found myself both wishing for more context here and grateful for years of EW/Wikipedia readership.
Profile Image for emma.
130 reviews80 followers
April 18, 2022
a fascinating exploration of how and why the golden era of comedy television came to be accompanied by an explanation of the devastating fall of this era and network television altogether.

full of interviews with (ex) nbc staff and both the people behind and in front of the camera of beloved shows such as seinfeld, mad about you, friends, and will and grace, this is a must-read for anybody who, like me, is devoted to the must-see tv era and all of those involved in the making of it.
Profile Image for Amy.
3,462 reviews78 followers
September 10, 2012
I wasn't sure about this. I only watched a few of the shows in the "Must See TV" era and most of those were from the early years. Still, this was an interesting read. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the development and production of many of the shows, especially Cheers and Frasier, Mad About You, Friends, ER and Will and Grace.

As far as ER went, when they were getting ready to air the pilot, NBC advertised via a 60-second snippet on LA Law. The same was true for LA Law on Hill Street Blues -- loved reading (briefly) about this historical progression.

Also, it is interesting to see where NBC has gone since the "Must See TV" era ended and after Warren Littlefield was fired.

Finally, it was especially interesting to learn a little more about the ratings system. The highest rated piece of episodic TV is the final episode of M*A*S*H (CBS) when 77% of American households were planted in front of their TV to watch history in the making.

As more television channels came into play, The Cosby Show (America and NBC's #1 rated show) for years, used to get 50% of American households watching.

Today, with most TVs getting over 400 channels (tv, movies, music, etc.), American Idol, the #1 rated show in the country only has about 20% of the country watching it!

Also, over the years, the way people watch TV has changed dramatically. Back 30 years ago (which doesn't seem that long), you had to sit in front of the TV if you wanted to see your show. Then, you could record your favorite show on a videotape. Today, with satellite, DVR, live streaming on a computer, etc., you can record multiple shows and watch them at your convenience.

Towards the end of the book, one gentleman stated that he had talked to 49 other people about a show that they had all watched. Only TWO sat in front of the TV and watched it.

Profile Image for Dale.
1,704 reviews58 followers
July 6, 2012
Published by Doubleday in 2012

If you remember the giant television shows of NBC's heyday in the 1980s and 1990s this book will be fascinating. Shows like Cheers, Cosby, Law & Order, ER, Will & Grace, Friends, Frazier, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Mad About You and Seinfeld ruled the airwaves. Thursday nights were dominated by NBC and NBC usually made more money on that night than the other six nights combined - literally billions of dollars.

Warren Littlefield was directly involved in the creation of these shows or the in the decision to put them on the air. Littlefield tells the story of "Must See TV" through the voices of the participants themselves. The book is literally a series of quotes with very little in the way of narration from Littlefield himself. Littlefield calls it "oral history" format. If this book were a movie, it would be one of those "talking head" documentaries full of people talking.

But, what a documentary it would be!

I had my reservations about this book, especially when I saw its format. But, once I started it I blazed right through it. The stories behind the creation of these beloved television shows are interesting and told very well. Some stories are more interesting than others, of course, but the book zips along and is full of interesting tidbits like this one - Fred Dryer was the frontrunner for the part of Sam Malone of Cheers, instead of Ted Danson.

The inside story of what was going on in corporate NBC is interesting and, I suspect, a little self-serving on Littlefield's part. He is especially tough on Don Ohlmeyer (who does sound like a difficult person to work with) and makes it sound like NBC has not broadcast much in the way of quality programming since he left.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting book and I rate it 5 stars out of 5.
Profile Image for Mark Schlatter.
1,087 reviews10 followers
August 5, 2012
This is really two books in one. On the one hand, you have a fascinating oral history of the "Must See TV" era on NBC. It's a bit jumpy, and you don't get all the voices (only half the cast of Friends, no George Clooney talking about ER), but it's still chock full of insights on casting, development, and filming of the shows. One of those behind-the-scenes books that I pick up, can't put down, and incessantly tell my wife stories from. I would like to see a more in-depth work covering these shows, but this will definitely do for now.

On the other hand, you also have a history of Warren Littlefield and his claims to NBC's success. A lot of it sounds great --- especially the parts where he trusts the creative folk to make good, compelling shows. But there's also some tearing down, especially of Littlefield's boss, Don Ohlmeyer. In fact, stories that put Ohlmeyer in a bad light regularly occur throughout the book. Now for all I know, Ohlmeyer was the bad boss portrayed here --- but you're not going to see another view in this book.

A little more mystifying is the last chapter, where Littlefield talks about being fired, and he and his friends lament the poor state of the current NBC and comedy in general. (The Big Bang Theory gets a one sentence savaging.) There's a constant emphasis on how NBC focuses on event TV (e.g., The Apprentice and The Biggest Loser). Now, I'm not a fan of those shows either, but I find it odd that a book that celebrates smart NBC comedies completely ignores current fare like 30 Rock and The Office. They don't pull in the ratings that Cheers and Friends did, but no show now possibly can --- broadcast television doesn't have the viewership anymore. A strange omission.

My advice --- read everything except the last half of the last chapter.
246 reviews5 followers
November 27, 2012
I like oral histories, but this was pretty disappointing because most of the commentators were NBC executives patting themselves on the back for how great they were at their job. Business types are fine in small doses, but they tend to be a little more restrained when they talk, more used to trying to guard their own back, so this book feels a lot more controlled and PC than say the Saturday Night Live oral history. For example, there wasn't any discussion of shows they tried that didn't work, which is often just as interesting as looking at what did work, and I think that's because they only wanted to show the positive side of things for ego boosting reasons. You don't read a book like this to read a calvacade of "we had a genius idea and then executed it well and then we became winners" rants - there doesn't have to be an axe to grind necessarily, but it helps if there are tidbits that you wouldn't know from just reading the credits on the show and looking at the ratings every now and then.

Also, the timeline is really jumbled, because they devote chapters to specific shows rather than doing the whole thing chronologically, so the Cheers and the Cosby show will show up a hundred pages after we last saw them, which made the book seem a bit disorganized. It really shows how the topic at hand is maybe a little too vague. The Cosby Show and E.R. are vastly different shows, but they lumped them together here because they were both on the same night, which is kind of a thin connective tissue, like writing a book about Schindler's List and Good Will Hunting just because they both won Oscars.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
856 reviews60 followers
July 19, 2012
I love me a good tv anthology book. Give me a tomb about any time in TV history (in my lifetime) and I'll gobble it up. This one was about the height of Must-See-TV on NBC back in the 90's. Even though "technically" it was written by Warren Littlefield, it was definitely more like the SNL and Second City anthologies that came out a while back, but Warren probably wrote the most and it was about his time on the network, but there were loads of peoples opinions in it.

It was an okay read. Like some of the comments that I have read said, I wish it talked more about the failures instead of just pretty much only about the successes. I did like the things I didn't know much about, like all the stuff in the 80's with Cheers and the Cosby show. Even though the book was long, it was a very quick read and I actually felt like it didn't have enough details on shows. Like there could have been a book each about every single show. Now that I would read. For the most part, this book was nothing new, nothing a huge TV fan didn't already know. But an okay read non-the-less. Mainly because even though it was huge and long, it read quickly.
Profile Image for Patrick Book.
877 reviews7 followers
December 3, 2013
I don't know who this book is for. This pseudo-oral history is populated by too many suits and business types and few of the creative people Littlefield keeps saying are so important. It purports to explain the business side of the equation but glosses over details in favour of broad allusions to the importance of scheduling. The entire way along Littlefield praises himself and condemns execs like Don Ohlmeyer, never giving those he maligns a chance for rebuttals. Even worse is the album's closing chapter, a chance for a resentful Littlefield and others spurned by NBC after his ouster to bad mouth and metaphorically shit all over his successor, Jeff Zucker (who admittedly is a know-nothing twat, even if only for fucking over Conan O'Brien). It comes off as petty and mean-spirited, undermining all the preceding attempts to be magnanimous.

What little good there is to this gets lost in all the self-congratulatory back-slapping. There's a very good story to be told in NBC's glory days but this isn't it.
Profile Image for Muffin.
252 reviews8 followers
April 25, 2019
Really enjoyed this reflection on NBC in the 90s. Littlefield is a bit self-congratulatory and largely skips over things like his network’s basic refusal to put Black actors on their shows (while celebrating Will and Grace’s decision to eliminate their one network-mandated Black character). But I love that the book pulls no punches about what an asshole Don Ohlmeyer was, and it ends discussing in depth how shitty Jeff Zucker is. Worth reading for anyone interested in this era of television!
Profile Image for Brianda.
178 reviews
September 14, 2019
This was pretty funny because 95% of this book is just cool anecdotes abt how Friends, Seinfeld, ER, Will and Grace, and Frasier came to be (loved hearing Jennifer Anniston ask someone at a gas station if they "think it will ever happen for" her), and then the last 5% is just Warren Littlefield shitting on NBC's programming at the time the book was published and how they lost all this money after he was fired by Don whatshisface.
Profile Image for Anna.
266 reviews
July 2, 2012
Easy reading for fans of shows like Seinfeld, Cheers, Friends, etc. I thought I might have overdosed on NBC insider info because I recently read "The War for Late Night," but no, my hunger for behind-the-scenes tv network books remains strong.
268 reviews2 followers
November 10, 2020
Remember back in the day, when network TV was worth watching? Seems like a century ago, doesn't it? But in the 1990s, NBC aired one killer show after another, many of them on Thursday night – Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, ER, Cheers, the Cosby Show, and (to a lesser extent, in my opinion) Will & Grace, Mad About You, 3rd Rock from the Sun. From 1993-98 was the last Golden Era of network TV, and in this 2012 book, former NBC executive Warren Littlefield tells the stories behind all of the biggest shows in TV at the time, in the words of those who wrote, produced and starred in the shows. It's gossipy and full of amazing stories about some of TV's best shows, like how Seinfeld was originally given an order of only six shows, because it was considered to be 'too Jewish'. If you remember these shows, you're certain to find this book a great read. Almost makes you sad that network TV isn't remotely like this anymore.
92 reviews
December 27, 2022
Enjoyed the look at the shows that I enjoyed watching (primarily Seinfeld and Friends), but also felt like I knew the most about the development, production and ending of those, so there wasn’t anything too groundbreaking. This book does give a good look into how shows are pitched and put together and it’s amazing how many seemingly random things come together to produce a hit.

This era of NBC shows was awesome, though. Made me want to watch ER, which I was too young for at the time.

Last bit of the book felt like Littlefield had an axe to grind with a handful of people and was simply trying to show how the top line guys after he left dropped the ball.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,052 reviews27 followers
October 11, 2022
It's interesting that most of the time that I see these "oral history" books, they are almost always about the entertainment business. I'm not sure why this specific format doesn't seem to show up elsewhere, or why it's so prevalent in the entertainment business. This book was interesting in that it felt a bit closer to the "constructed history narrative" end of the spectrum than books like Seinfeldia or Powerhouse , though still firmly in the "bunch of quotes from people involved" genre.

I guess the twist here is that the book was written by Warren Littlefield, who was president of NBC during the Must See TV Era, which is interesting though in the end I don't know that it made much difference. I think it was a bit of a referential joke that the audiobook was read by Bob Balaban, who played a stand-in for Littlefield on Seinfeld.

As for the content of the book — decently interesting, particularly for people who watched a lot of the sitcoms on NBC in that era. It didn't seem too self-aggrandizing, which is the usual pitfall with books like this.
Profile Image for Rachel.
52 reviews
January 18, 2022
rounding down instead of the 3.5.

Starting off my year by making a mistake in choosing the audio book over the physical book. Was cool to hear how shows like Friends and Cheers came about, and the tweaking of Law & Order/CSI to become marketable.
Profile Image for Dachokie.
346 reviews18 followers
September 3, 2013
Skeletal Reminiscence of NBC's Haughty Heyday ...

This book was reviewed as part of Amazon's Vine program which included a free advance copy of the book.

It's hard to deny that NBC `s primetime shows dominated television from the late 1980s through the 1990s as diverse programs like "Seinfeld", "The Cosby Show", "Will and Grace", "Cheers", "Friends" and "ER" seemed to offer a little something to almost anyone in America. So lucrative was this wave of success, the network justifiably and arrogantly deemed its primetime line-up as "Must See TV". TOP OF THE ROCK takes us back to the bygone era of NBC's primetime dominance; while it may rekindle a desire to re-watch old television shows, it does little else.

To be honest, the purpose of this book confounds me. Warren Littlefield's assisted account of being at the helm of NBC while it aired some of modern television's most iconic programs alludes to being a barn-burner ... but TOP OF THE ROCK falls flat. Rather than a meaty, first-person perspective, this hastily compiled conglomeration of remembrances from those involved with "Must See TV" (actors, producers, executives, etc.) is bare-bones and disappointing. Similarly-styled books that capture the explosive growth of cable icons MTV and ESPN prove to be far more detailed and interesting than TOP OF THE ROCK, which reads more like an incomplete outline of a bigger, potentially better story ... not the final product. This relatively "feel good" basic account of past events comes across as contrived ... and insignificant. I found it shocking that a book detailing the heyday of a vaunted network giant would offer nowhere near the content of its cable counterparts' books.

What went wrong? Well, first of all, the drama ... it doesn't exist in the book. Network television giants operate in a divisive, ruthless, greedy and scandalous world where even those with big egos take a back seat to super-ego "alphas" that serve as network executives (read the "War for Late Night" or read/see "The Late Shift" ... or any tabloid for that matter) ... the book captures none of it. Instead, we are presented with a tidy series of events that answers the first chapter's question of "how will NBC survive the end of `Cheers'"? Each subsequent chapter represents the addition of a successful new show that constitutes the "Must See TV" family. Aside from the occasional actor or executive sharing their initial concerns with the success of a particular new show, the reader gets no action. Other than a recurring quip about network president Don Ohlmeyer's ego, everyone at the Peacock Network appear as members of a big, happy family enjoying and respecting each others' hard work and success. A total love-fest; there is not even a whiff of cattiness amongst the actors ... really? In addition to the lack of drama, there is surprisingly no humor in TOP OF THE ROCK. How can contributions from the cast of "Seinfeld" and "Will and Grace" be so bland? There are absolutely no recollections of funny happenings on the sets of these shows ... not even one. With the elements of drama and humor conspicuously absent from the book, readers may ask themselves the same question I asked: What is the purpose of this book? The book is structured with each chapter being titled with a quote or phrase that identifies an NBC show discussed in the chapter. The chapters themselves are rather disorganized and hodge-podge. While Littlefield's commentary serves as a narration of sorts throughout the book, there is no binding biographical or historical text that introduces or organizes each chapter ... just a bunch of quotes. And while 300+ pages may seem "meaty", it is not. Too many one and two-sentenced contributions dominate the TOP OF THE ROCK, further revealing the book's goal of merely skimming the surface of the "Must See TV" story.

I feel I am justified in my criticism of TOP OF THE ROCK; my disappointment stems mainly from the lost potential of this book. It appears that there IS an interesting story to tell, but TOP OF THE ROCK seems restrained in its efforts to tell it. While only being offered a taste of the network's success during a decade-long reign; readers never really get the sense that there was any hard work or excitement associated with generating such great television programs. TOP OF THE ROCK is a quiet and quick read with no real depth on any substantive issues (other than scant banter on the public's acceptance of "Will and Grace"). The one redeeming aspect of the book is that we discover what other actors were considered for some of the programs, but not much else. I consider TOP OF THE ROCK to be a missed opportunity and a failure when compared to similar books offered by network TV's red-headed step-children: cable's ESPN and MTV. I'm sure NBC and "Must See TV" has a story to offer, but I can't imagine this is it.
Profile Image for Brenden Gallagher.
271 reviews16 followers
July 20, 2020
I generally don't love oral history or memoir, so I was a bit dubious when it came to combining the two. However, Warren Littlefield's "Top of the Rock" offers a fairly unique and invaluable perspective when it comes to showbusiness stories: the nuts and bolts view from the executive suite.

Littlefield ran NBC during the "Must See TV" era, which spanned the twilight of "Cheers" to the end of "Seinfeld." During that time, he shepherded shows like "ER," "Friends," "Will & Grace," and "Seinfeld" through what was maybe the greatest run in broadcast television history.

I am a TV writer and many of my peers instinctually dislike executives. I think because I was an assistant for a number of years -- and in particular, a showrunner's assistant -- I have more respect for what executives do than someone who made it to staff writer right away. Sometimes writers are wrong and even if the note is bad, usually executives are right about the disease if not the treatment. I've had a more neutral seat in those arguments than a lot of people in show biz.

What Littlefield and other great executives like John Landgraf at FX have is an instinct for when to get involved and when not to. He knew they needed Jennifer Aniston on "Friends." He knew they needed to pay Jerry Seinfeld whatever he wanted to keep him around. He knew he had to give John Wells the budget to shoot ER the way he wanted. He also knew when not to give dumb or cowardly notes. Most bad notes are cowardly in my experience.

Good executives say they know when to get out of the way and let artists be artists. I would add that good executives also know when to intervene with forceful conviction. The bottom line is that the network has to know what show the writers are making and ensure that it is the same show they are selling audiences. It's a harder job than you think, and this book is probably the best nuts and bolts examination of what executives do and why they are important that you could ask for.

Don't get me wrong: the book isn't perfect. I don't think there is much objective about the book one way or the other. I doubt Don Ohlmeyer was as bad as he comes off here and I know that some of the people portrayed as geniuses simply aren't. But, as far as an honest enough account of how a television executive does their job and how that can make or break a slate of programming, this should be considered an essential text. And as a document of a particular moment at the twilight of broadcast TV history, it is meaningful Hollywood history.
Profile Image for Trevor.
134 reviews9 followers
June 14, 2012
Pretty good quick read, if you're into the history of television and/or any of the shows that made up the Must See TV era of NBC. Even though I'd argue that television as a whole is better right now, I was surprised how nostalgic this book made me for that era, when it felt like everyone in America was watching the same shows as you, at the same time. There's some truth to that, too - as this book points out, even the #1 shows today only have about a third or less of the audience that shows like Seinfeld, Friends and ER had at their prime. Anyway, I loved those three shows, and loved reading about their development. I was never a Mad About You or 3rd Rock from the Sun guy, so I was a little less interested in those sections. Reading about Frasier reminded me of how much I enjoyed that show for its first few years. What really caught me off guard was how much the book made me reconsider Will & Grace, a show that I was always a casual fan of, at best. The book really makes a strong case for just how strong and groundbreaking it was, not to mention really being the last show of that era. Anyway, like I said, check this one out if you enjoy these shows. It's an oral history book (my favorite kind of history book), so it's a really fast one to get through, too.
6 reviews
October 6, 2021
I would recommend Top of the Rock to anyone who was a fan of NBC's great shows of the '80s and '90s, and who wonders what became of them. The book has its limitations, like it appears to have been published just before the Team Leno/Team Coco stuff went down, but what you get is entertaining and informative. One thing I really liked about the book was that they assume anyone interested in the topic is already informed on such things as a pilot presentation, or "the upfronts" and doesn't waste time defining things the reader already knows. Also it was interesting to hear how many participants really told on themselves as far as their sexist or otherwise prejudiced opinions. Honestly there were times where I felt like "you f'in deserve it," in regards to how far NBC has fallen since their glory days. Indeed, it seems a second book could be written going more into the "fall" part of the NBC story in the '00s and '10s.

All of that aside, I enjoyed learning about the background of some of my favorite shows. I appreciated the candor that people interviewed had. Bob Balaban was an absolutely perfect narrator; I would definitely recommend getting the audiobook on this one because his voice and demeanor were well-suited to the material.
Profile Image for Nick.
9 reviews
June 12, 2019
I read this book because I have read Live From New York (an oral history of SNL) and enjoyed it. I thought I would like this because it’s a similar topic and also an oral history. (Also, I was going to drive 6 hours over a weekend and needed an available audiobook).

I liked this less than Live from New York. Where that book is all about one show, this book is about many shows: Seinfeld, Will & Grace, Cheers, Frasier, ER, Friends, and more. And so this book is much briefer on those shows. And many of the points among the shows are the same: collaboration produced better art, studio executives don’t know quality content, TV shows need time to develop, let talented people do their thing, and hire Jim Burrows to direct. That gets pretty repetitive and, with only a shallow dive on each show, rather boring.

I found the ER chapters interesting, though. They stand out because they are talking about the lone drama among a sea of comedies.

My view of the book may be diminished because I was listening to the audiobook (which is read by the same voice actor through out the book), instead of reading. And so I didn’t spend time imagining what all of the voices sounded like.
Profile Image for Rob Jansing.
22 reviews1 follower
July 23, 2013
There are certainly lots of fun tidbits throughout the book, but it read like a really long magazine article. Just a personal preference but I just didn't care for the style it was written in. It was like reading a transcript of a group interview, or a made for t.v. retrospective. There were times where Mr. Littlefield was a little full of himself, but considering what his story was and to see where he came from and where he ultimately made it to, I guess it's ok. Considering how many of the "players" were brought in for commentary in this book, it made the ones who were left out stand out. Why weren't they included? Is it possible they didn't share the same glowing views of the Must See TV era? There are always 2 sides to a story. Maybe Matthew Perry or Michael Richards for example don't look back on this era so fondly. Maybe they don't look back on Mr. Littlefield so fondly. I picked the book up used at Barnes and Noble so I feel like I got my money's worth... if I had paid full price I'm not so sure I would feel the same way.
Profile Image for Amy S.
248 reviews35 followers
May 30, 2015
I bought this book at the dollar store. Yep, the dollar store! Went there for teacher supplies and bam! Came out w a book as well.

Anyway, so if you know me well you know my son is a wee bit in the industry. He is in a minute maid commercial airing currently. So I am a bit familiar w audition processes and legalities and snobberies etc. I enjoyed this book for the sheer nerdiness of all the behind the scenes info. I find the casting process fascinating. The business of getting a show on the air, networks vs creativity, etc.

Admittedly, I did a lot of skimming. Some parts were more interesting than others. So for me it was a great book. Anyone who does not remember must see TV or who does not find the behind the scenes business interesting should pass. I recommend library or yes, dollar store.
Profile Image for Martha Bode.
532 reviews2 followers
July 8, 2012
Mowed through this 'oral history' of MUST SEE TV .... And if you don't know what that is, this isn't the book for you. Backstories about casting and controversies sent me to you tube to see the original opening of 'Friends Like Us' when it had an REM theme song, and before it became just Friends..... While a lot of the stories were entertaining, the author (former NBC big wig Warren Littlefield) is patently confident in his contributions to NBC, which apparently went straight to heck when he was fired. There are also plenty of actors reflecting about the importance of their shows.... And lots of gushing about chemistry. Read at the risk of ego-dodging and players who are very impressed with themselves. And SPOILER, Don Ohlmeyer and Jeff Zucker are evil trolls, in case you care. I didn't.
Profile Image for Sharon Falduto.
1,114 reviews12 followers
October 20, 2019
This was interesting, and had a lot of anecdotes from tv directors and actors. It was written in a choppy style where they just had quotes from everyone--kind of like a play--instead of a narrative, which was a little irritating, but I got used to it.

A whole bunch of "you could NEVER get away with this at networks now! Back then we had freedom! It was so much better!" Really, in Warren Littlefield's eyes, he created Everything That Mattered To TV Ever (Friends, E/R. Seinfeld...) and then Jeff Zucker became president of NBC entertainment and killed television.

The dust jacket makes the spurious claim that it is about the best era ever in tv history. I'm not denying that I liked Must See TV but come on, there were other great eras.
7 reviews9 followers
October 12, 2021
Only interesting if you want to learn a bit more about your favorite shows' behind-the-scenes. Even then, the details are pretty bland and Littlefield basically just repeat chapter after chapter that he let his creatives make the decisions. Lot of quick comments from other execs at NBC for each show's chapter, but they are pretty disjointed and not particularly insightful. Near the end, it seems like Littlefield is still bitter about his firing at NBC and used it to vent about the decline of NBC viewership and quality after his departure(despite other networks suffering the same fate.) Only read the first half of the book covering the intro and cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends and the last 2-3 chapters about his departure because the book is not particularly captivating.
Profile Image for Jason.
175 reviews1 follower
May 17, 2019
As I think I've mentioned before, the "Oral History" storytelling model is something that I am a sucker for.

If you're around my age (ahem, 38) and remember the Must See TV line ups in the mid-90s (Friends, Seinfeld, ER), you remember how it really was appointment television. The shows were excellent and the stories behind the scenes of those shows (and other shows like Frasier, Mad About You and Will & Grace) are really enjoyable and QUICK to read.

The book has a point of view, Warren Littlefield is credited as the author, so there is some bias in this one.

Even still, if you're at all interested in this time of television, this is a real fun read.
517 reviews
July 5, 2012
"by" Warren Littlefield is a really pushing it. It is mostly typed transcripts of interviews. The cast of "friends" really think they invented television. Never liked them in the past...really don't like them now.
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