By Warren Littlefield, Special to TelevisionWeek
What about Bob? For us, at NBC with Brandon Tartikoff and myself, we’d had a really great run in mid- and late 1980s where we surged forward to being No. 1. We felt we had a pretty good idea of what we were supposed to do as programmers and broadcasters. Then GE acquired NBC and Bob came in. Bob introduced strategic thinking to us for the first time. I must say that while we had had our share of success, that was a foreign notion. In our biz, it was difficult to not make money. What we heard from Bob was the times are a-changin’—the biz is moving faster than you can see and you’re going to have to figure out, as every single household has more choices, you’ll have to figure out more who you are and who you want to be.
Strategy was something we made up before the presentations to the advertisers and affiliates—it came after the fact. Until that time, it served us well. Bob was an eye-opener. That was a tough position for him to take because it wasn’t like, hey, isn’t showbiz great. It was—I’m here to tell you it’s changing. It wasn’t a popular position always, but it was unbelievably accurate and prescient.
One of the things I’ll always admire about Bob is that Bob prepared us for the future. And then as I took over the presidency of the network in 1990, a lot of our hits had gone away. Our programming was stale. It was time to reinvent the network. That’s where a lot of what Bob predicted had come true—we had to hurry up and respond and do a lot of things he talked about.
I respect that mind that didn’t come in and say, I know how to develop a comedy. He never pitched me a half-hour in his life. (I’m not saying he never pitched an hour.) But that wasn’t what he was there for.
We watched Bob take the company that was a very narrowly defined broadcast company and just ramp it up to become a cable entity as well as a broadcast company, a real increase in our O&Os, and strategically morph NBC into a company built for the ’90s and far beyond. There is a privilege to be able to work with him and see how his mind worked. Ultimately that prepared us for everything we had to face in order to succeed. And in fact we did. After a shaky start for all broadcasting in the early ’90s, the rest of the decade was very, very good for NBC.
That’s my big picture on Bob. And one anecdote: “Seinfeld” had one of the worst pieces of research we’d had on any pilot. I had a copy of the initial research report that said, “Overall performance: weak.” It’s a fun document to read because it says what a bad show it is. We’d stolen some money for the specials department, and on the pilot, before we lost the rights to it, we’d made a deal for 4 episodes. We put them on the air in summertime, after repeat “Cheers” episodes. It did OK, but not great. But we believed in it and made 13 more. And we put those on again and they did just OK. And we made another 13. And it was still far from the success story it became. We were at a scheduling session and I remember standing up and taking the scheduling card of “Seinfeld” and saying, “This is the future.” And Bob said, “You’re absolutely right.”
It was the voice of Bob Wright in a room of high-level management, before Americans declared what “Seinfeld” would be. He said, you’re absolutely right, why are we wasting our time with these other things when “Seinfeld” is our future. That declaration helped enable that show to have the life that it had. A series of decisions followed that—a chain of events—he saw it as well, and supported it.
And that’s what you want from your senior management. When it’s crunch time, you want a vision to support the things you’re passionate about. That’s not saying, hey, isn’t “The Cosby Show” great. You didn’t need anyone else to know that. This was one of those absolutely gray calls—but he saw it, he loved it and he supported it. That speaks volumes.
Warren Littlefield is the former programming chief for NBC and now heads The Littlefield Company.