Though absent from NBC press briefing, Brandon Tartikoff's presence felt


LOS ANGELES -- Brandon Tartikoff is not at this meeting of the television critics with the NBC stars and executives for the first time in something like a dozen years.

But his presence still hovers over the gathering -- mainly because of genuine concern about his health. Tartikoff is in a Reno, Nev., hospital recovering from serious injuries received from an automobile accident last week.

While his condition continues to improve, the status of his 8-year-old daughter, Calla, who received a head injury, remains serious. Each day's session with the press has begun with updates on their conditions.

But Tartikoff remains a presence also because it was widely perceived last summer when he moved upstairs to the job of president of the network's entertainment group and handed over the entertainment presidency to Warren Littlefield, that the change was merely semantic, that Tartikoff would still be calling the shots and Littlefield would still be second in command.

Indeed, many undoubtedly think that, were it not for the accident, Tartikoff would be here to answer the questions about ratings and schedules and midseason replacements that he has answered so many times in the past, with Littlefield merely adding his assent, though the reports are that Tartikoff planned to stay away.

Whatever might have been, Littlefield got to fly solo for the first time before the press. And he claimed that that's exactly the way he gets to run the entertainment division these days.

He said the relationship with Tartikoff since the July changes has worked out exactly as he expected.

"Brandon has been there and he's a sensational resource to have. On the important decisions, his is a great perspective to have. But ultimately, as we agreed, he sat back and said, 'Here are my thoughts, but these are your decisions.'"

Tartikoff's timing in turning over these responsibilities could not have been better. Just a couple of years ago, NBC won the Nielsen ratings week-in and week-out without serious competition from anything less massive than a World Series or Super Bowl.

This season, NBC continues to lead the Nielsen tally, but by a much smaller margin. It has won 10 weeks of the season, but finished second on the other five. It's got major problems on two nights, Friday and Sunday, and spots of difficulties on almost every night of the week.

"We're in a rebuilding phase," Littlefield said of NBC's status. "Now that part of that rebuilding has been seen, some of the programs we put on the air have not worked. But I also think there were a number of the things we did this last fall that were successful."

He pointed to the time period win and solid demographic performance by "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" on Monday and the solid ratings of "Law and Order" on Tuesday as the best results from the fall premiere season, claiming those two shows are the highest rated new comedy and drama on the air.

He said that the recent moves of the new "Blossom" to Monday night and the teaming of "Night Court" and "Seinfeld" on Wednesday will shore up some weak spots. He even said that the low-rated shows on Friday night had attracted the young viewers back to the network fold on that night and that he expected better performance with the debut of "Dark Shadows" on Friday.

And he claimed the show NBC will put on Sunday at 7 o'clock next month is not a cheap way to program a difficult time period. "Sunday Best" will use clips from the previous week's NBC shows. It looked like a temporary filler until the network could come up with something else. But Littlefield said that was not the case as he announced that Carl Reiner will host the hour.

"We're going to try to do a hip, irreverent comedy variety %J program that explores every facet of television, past, present and future," he said. While it will use bits from NBC shows of the past week, Littlefield emphasized that over half of the hour will be original material.

Contributors will include Merrill Markoe, who has worked with David Letterman, Bruce Handy from Spy magazine, Matt Neuman of "Not Necessarily the News," Linda Ellerbee doing something like her old "TGIF" segments and comedians Harry Shearer and Jeff Cesario.

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