NBC trying to stay calm in TV turbulence


July 30, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- Warren Littlefield seemed to be the calm eye in the midst of the storm.

The NBC Entertainment president, meeting the press for the first time without the high-profile presence of his predecessor Brandon Tartikoff hovering over his shoulder, took the stage following the appearances by his counterparts at ABC, Robert Iger, and CBS, Jeff Sagansky.

Littlefield, with his carefully cropped beard and carefully chosen ties, said, "It's been quite a year."

A year ago, it was thought by many that, though Littlefield had the entertainment president title, the real power would remain with Tartikoff, who was given a new group president title.

"It was a real difficult year for me personally. After taking the job, I woke up and the advertising market had taken a plunge as part of the weak economy. I thought it was my fault. I wondered what I had done.

"But I couldn't fix it. And in the fall, some of the shows that I had my hopes and dreams for didn't fare as well as I had hoped. . . .

"And then we hit the war. I'm sitting there pleased about putting 'Night Court' and 'Seinfeld' together on Wednesday night and war breaks out.

"It was declared on Thursday night! Imagine that," he said, a reference to NBC's ratings strength on that night, programming that was lost to coverage of Scud missile attacks on Israel.

"It was insanity. It was very, very difficult," he said, claiming that the aftermath of the war hurt the audience for the type of programs he had scheduled for the February sweeps month.

Clearly, Littlefield's calm demeanor helped him get through the year. He's probably going to need more of it as NBC's pre-eminent position in the ratings is under serious assault.

"I think NBC will continue to be number one in household ratings," Littlefield predicted.

He divided his schedule into three groups -- the senior class, shows like "Cheers" and "The Golden Girls" that may be aging but still beat the competition; the sophomores, shows like "Quantum Leap," "Fresh Prince" and "Law and Order" that NBC expects to improve this year; and the freshman class of nine new shows.

He pointed to the possibility of distinct ratings growth on Sunday night, anchored at 8 p.m. by a new James Garner sitcom, "Man of the People," which is preceded at 7:30 by what might be NBC's best new show, the teen-age "Twilight Zone," "Eerie, Indiana."

And clearly, NBC is hoping to improve on Fridays by teaming old reliable "Dear John" with newcomer "Flesh 'n Blood" in the 9 o'clock hour, followed by "Reasonable Doubts," a new hour starring Marlee Matlin and Mark Harmon.

"A lot of people laughed when they heard the idea of 'Reasonable Doubts,'" Littlefield said. "They just didn't think it was possible to mount a weekly show with a deaf actress. But I think the pilot shows that it's going to be a terrific show.

"In fact, I think if you look at our dramatic schedule," which includes critics' favorites like "L.A. Law," "Quantum Leap" and "Law and Order" as well as "Reasonable Doubts," "you'll find that's what distinguishes us from the other guys."

That was a shot at both Iger, for canceling his critically acclaimed shows, and at Sagansky, who has scheduled two lackluster new hours, "Palace Guard" and the embarrassing "P.S. I Luv You."

"We've given an awful lot of thought as to who we at NBC want to be. We want NBC to be a place that encourages people to come work with us, that lets people know that our airwaves are open and not cluttered with commitments, a place that puts new programs on the air, that lets the creativity community know that we respect their freedom," Littlefield said.

Again, he was taking a shot, particularly at ABC, which has given multi-show commitments to a number of top producers including Steven Bochco ("L.A. Law") and James Brooks ("The Simpsons").

But it seemed ironic to hear that coming from Littlefield, who has practically handed his Saturday night over to the Disney studio, with three of the four half hours from Disney coming from the same Witt-Thomas-Harris production team.

Or who reportedly was forced to put "Wings" behind "Cheers" on Thursday night because both are from Paramount.

Indeed, part of NBC's financial problems are caused by its own success. The cost of renewing a show as successful as "Cheers" or "The Golden Girls" has gotten so high -- in money as well as commitments for other shows -- that there is virtually no profit in the deal for the network.

"Financially, we are trying to figure out how to do things better," Littlefield said. ". . . Times are changing. Financially, we have to figure out how to do things better."

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