Kevin Fallon interviewed Warren Littlefield, who ran NBC’s Entertainment division during the fertile years of 1993 to 1998 to talk about his new book, an oral history of Must See TV. He doesn’t have anything illuminating to say about the present, dismal state of NBC—does anybody?—but Littlefield does have some interesting context to offer on the fight to get NBC to go forward with Will & Grace:
Management said, “What the hell are you doing? Why are you developing Will and Grace?” It’s network television, and we have advertisers to answer to. Advertisers are not ready to embrace, at the core of a show, a relationship between a gay man and straight woman. What are you doing?…As I looked at the world, we lived in a world where I saw that relationship all the time. It was this gap. Television had ignored it. I knew that Max and David had a great feel for that world and those characters. They just needed to be convinced that we would actually go forward with it if they wrote it. I said to them, “If you do a great job, we’ll have to.” And that’s what they did. So then in order to kind of hip-check my management, I made sure that I went to Jimmy Burrows. When Jimmy fell in love with the project, I knew that no one could stand in the way…Lo and behold, advertisers said, “Oh, this is a really funny show.” That’s all they saw. So there was no protest. There was no advertiser boycott. It just went on and continued to carry the torch of what Must See TV stood for.
It’s one of the clearest cases I’ve ever seen of executives being afraid to greenlight something they didn’t have personal experience with, and overestimating the negative reaction as a result. I’m sure there are others. It’s rather sad to me that if someone doesn’t see a potential audience or kinds of relationships with their own eyes, they’d be unable to imagine that it exists. I don’t assume that my experience is the sum total of the world, and I do believe it’s incumbent on me to broaden that pool of experiences I have to draw on. Gay men and their straight female friends aren’t unicorns. Neither are middle-class black families. It’s infinitely irksome that gatekeepers wouldn’t have learned this basic lesson, and that it keeps the world of entertainment smaller and more limited by poverty of imagination than it has to be.