BROOKE GLADSTONE: Warren Littlefield joined NBC during another downturn in 1979. Eventually he ran the entertainment division, presiding over many of the network's best years. He joins us now to relive the good, the bad and the ugly. Warren, welcome to the show.
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So can we do a quick history of NBC's entertainment programming? You lived through a lot of it in your nearly 20 years there. I know that it struggled through most of the '70s, but the worst year was 1983, when Fred Silverman was in charge. There were nine new series launched -- Bay City Blues, Boone, For Love and Honor, Jennifer Slept Here, The Rousters, Mr. Smith, We've Got it Made, The Yellow Rose, and Manimal. [FILM CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN: Jonathan Chase, master of the secrets that divide man from animal, animal from man. [ROARING] Manimal! [END FILM CLIP]
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: Wow. [BROOKE LAUGHS] That was a pretty scary time. We sat around Brandon Tartikoff's office at night, and we were convinced that we were all going to be fired.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Nine shows launched, all of them cancelled - an unprecedented achievement in network TV. What went wrong?
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: I don't think we were respecting the audience. We were thinking about the audience as "those people out there," and I don't think we were putting on television programming and developing programs that would have us flying down the freeway, racing to get to our television sets because we desperately wanted to see something that we believed was good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if not respecting the audience is what went wrong earlier on, is respecting the audience what went right?
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: I think when Cheers came along in the '84 season, NBC finally had a signature comedy. And Cheers was a really, really slow starter that finished its first season as the lowest rated half hour in all of television. We loved it, and so that's why we renewed it. And that's when Thursday night came to life. Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court -- those were the kings of comedy, and that turned around the network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, NBC, as you've observed, used to be able to afford a few flops. Are they so much more expensive now?
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: The cost of failure in the business is greater than it's ever been before. And if there is clear-cut rejection, then you pretty much don't have a choice. Seinfeld, the research was disastrous. People thought the show was too Jewish. Seinfeld very easily could have died, and yet we thought there was something there that had to be kept alive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: NBC is now gasping for breath again. It's shifted to a prime time schedule largely devoted to reality TV. Would you call this a path-breaking risk or is it just a cost-saving measure? Does it mark the end of the network sit-com and drama?
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: Well, I don't think it's the end. There are new shows that are introduced all the time that still capture millions and millions of American viewers. And yet without someone putting their body on the tracks, unless you have that kind of support, things don't happen. And I think ultimately these are times where networks are tested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Warren, thank you very much.
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Warren Littlefield is currently president of the Littlefield Company, a television production company. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER -- CHEERS THEME SONG]