Top of the Rock

Remember the days of NBC's "Must See TV", when you'd be sure to get in front of the television to watch Seinfeld or ER so that you could join in on the conversation at work the next day? Top of the Rock, an oral history of NBC's 15 year stellar run of programming that began in 1982, will make you reminisce for the days when you could find quality programming on non-cable tv channels. The book is credited to Warren Littlefield, former NBC President of Entertainment, and while he provides a basic structure to the book most of it is dedicated to anecdotes from the various behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera players. Among the members of the all-star oral history cast are Jerry Seinfeld, Jack Welch, Debra Messing, Kelsey Grammar and Megan Mullally.

In the early 1980s NBC had fallen behind its two main rivals (Fox did not exist yet) and the joke was that NBC was the "number four" network. But starting with Cheers and The Cosby Show NBC became determined to claw its way up in the Nielsen ratings. While Cheers was not a ratings hit at first it did set the standard for quality casting and writing and sophisticated comedy at the network. This success led to the "show about nothing" that was Seinfeld which eventually earned the network $1.8 million per 30 second commercial spot.

This book gives the details of the creation, casting, recasting and production of these shows plus other hits like ER, Law & Order, Frasier and Friends. One of the heroes of the book is Jim Burrows, who started out directing shows like Taxi and Mary Tyler Moore and eventually was the steady hand guiding Cheers, Friends, Frasier and more. Of course any book needs a villain and this role is given to Don Ohlmeyer, former president of NBC's West Coast division. His conflicts with Littlefield lead to Littlefield's eventual firing and the end of "Must See TV".

The last chapter of the book sees the various participants speculating about whether NBC can ever become what it once was in these days of reality programming. Much of the quality television seems to have moved over to cable and the hits on cable tend to have a much smaller market share than the "Must See TV" hits had when they were ruling the airwaves. My quibble with the book is that I would have liked to have heard more about the failures during the Littlefield years rather than just the successes. But overall this is a nice read for anyone interested in the ins and outs of the television business.

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