Former NBC Execs Look Back on the Births of 'ER,' 'Seinfeld,' and 'Will & Grace'

The execs gathered Tuesday in Beverly Hills to discuss the Must See TV era of NBC.
Courtesy of HRTS/Chyna Photography

These days, network heads John Langraf (FX), David Nevins (Showtime) and Kevin Reilly (TBS and TNT) compete against each other to land the hottest shows and the most Emmy wins, but two decades ago, the trio were among those on the ground floor of NBC's Must See TV movement, helping push through passion projects like ER and Will & Grace that would come to define the network and television as a whole.

Joined by former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield (now an exec producer on Fargo) and former NBC execs Karey Burke (now of Freeform), Robin Schwartz (now of Big Beach) and Preston Beckman (now of The Beckman Group), the trio came together Tuesday to look back on the Must See TV era as part of the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s newsmakers luncheon series.

ER

Shortly after Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg teamed up on Jurassic Park to great success, a 20-year-old medical drama script from the former began making the rounds. "We thought it was really good and drama amazingly at that time was out of favor on television," recalled Reilly. "Everything was about comedy." NBC eventually bought it and made the pilot. "When it screened, it was like someone farted in the room. It was a not a successful outing," said Reilly.

Although the drama's fast pace eventually became a landmark of the show, there were early skeptics. "These people, they don't understand our business, these f–ing movie people, they don't respect what we do," Nevins recalled of criticisms from the higher-ups.

Many of those criticisms came from NBC's west coast president Don Ohlmeyer. "We wouldn’t allow Don to be in the notes session. We banned him from it. I should say an aside, I think all of us, we had a tough boss that we had to work for what it did in working for Don, it united us, if you really believe in something, you better stand up and fight for it," Littlefield said. "We really believed in that challenge, and we we were challenged."

It also became problematic that CBS likewise was preparing to launch a medical drama in the fall of '94 titled Chicago Hope. "A current report from CBS started floating NBC and they were like, 'Holy shit! In the first episode of Chicago Hope they're transplanting the heart of a bamboo into a little baby! We got nothing!'" said Nevins.

When both shows were expected to launch with the same share – a 22 – "we did what you never do to your sales team," said Littlefield, "and we held back a shit ton of inventory," which made ER the lowest selling new show on NBC going into the fall. By November, the show was pulling a 45 share.

"At the end of the day, I think we backed off and said, 'This is who we're betting on, and we managed the stress internally. And there was tons. There was screaming, there was fear," said Littlefield. "We believed in the writers and the producers, the showrunners, who had a vision. We had a document that said this is the highest-testing project in the history of the network."

Will & Grace

Back when the sitcom first was being developed, "Nobody thought that there could be a gay lead on television," recalled Schwartz, then vp of primetime series. However, the team had just come back from a corporate retreat where Littlefield had given the entire team large garden rocks with the word "risk" on them. When the final script came in for the series, seven members of the team took their rocks and placed them on top of the Will & Grace script in Littlefield's office.

However, "Don had other ideas," said Nevins of a particularly heated afternoon meeting in which Olmeyer asked, "'What f–ing world do you live in where you think America wants to watch [this]?'"

Like ER, the early pilot tapings and test screenings proved to be instrumental. "They were stomping, screaming and that was it. I [felt] like this is a hit show," said Littlefield of the pilot taping. "This show is embraced by real people who live in the valley and this is a monster, monster comedy."

Added Landgraf: "It played like a brilliant, riveting love story between a gay man and a heterosexual woman and the audience responded to it as if it was When Harry Met Sally. It was profound."

The project also got a very important seal of approval from the sales team and NBC Broadcasting CEO Bob Wright in New York. "The ultimate drama was when we screened it. We were all scared to death. Would the forces from New York raise their heads," said Littlefield. "The lights came up and Bob Wright said, this is the best thing we've ever had our name on."

Seinfeld

Unlike ER and Will & Grace, the pilot for Seinfeld did not test quite so well. "Unlike ER, it was probably the lowest testing pilot in the history of NBC: These are losers. It's not funny. We know who Jerry Seinfeld is. He should not do this show," said Reilly of the early feedback.

"We loved it. We picked up all this other crap and finally we were running out of options and time and there was a late-night meeting with finance and Preston," said Littlefield, which led to some creative accounting. Instead of using money from the primetime budget to pay for Seinfeld, the network used money from the late-night and specials department since Seinfeld had been commissioned by then-department-head Rick Ludwin. The network had to scrap a planned Bob Hope special to pay for Seinfeld's first season – "Bob still thinks he made that special," quipped Beckman, then head of scheduling.

"I called up Jerry and I said, 'Great news! We're going to continue the show. We're ordering four episodes,' and Jerry was quiet and always respectful and said, 'Just one question: In the history of television, has anything ever worked with a four-episode order?' I said, 'I don't know.' And he said, 'OK, we'll do it,' and that began the marriage."

Seinfeld, Littlefield said, went onto become much more than just a hit show for the network, calling it a "beacon" to the creative community. "It was those kinds of beacons that kept all of us in our jobs," he said.

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