Troubled NBC moving to stop the slide


NEW YORK -- Since the present is at best problematic for NBC, that network's executives were trying to grab onto the past and future as they paraded their wares onto the Carnegie Hall stage before representatives of their affiliate stations and the advertising community yesterday.

Take news president Michael Gartner. A year ago, with "Today" suffering serious self-inflicted wounds with the ouster of Jane Pauley and installation of Deborah Norville, he send a knight in armor out as his initial stand-in before this crowd.

This year, nobody's fool, Gartner was practically joined at the hip Katie Couric whose presence on "Today" has raised the ratings and almost erased the memory of the Norville nightmare.

Indeed, Gartner's ability to hide behind the ample maternity skirts of Couric allowed him to bask in her glow so he could turn the barely-out-of-third-place ratings for the network's "Nightly News" into "a strong second" and perform other sleights of hand.

The entertainment division, on the other hand, wanted to keep the affiliates' eyes firmly planted on the glory years just past. So none other than Ted Danson came out to introduce NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

Closing out the entertainment division's presentation was a stand-up act by Johnny Carson, who is about to begin his 30th and, he confirmed, final year on "The Tonight Show." Carson said his last telecast will be May 22, 1992.

In between, Littlefield tried to convince the affiliates that his lineup of new shows would stem the erosion that brought NBC to the brink of falling out of first place.

The results were, frankly, mixed. The shuffle on Saturday night should probably work since the two new shows going into the comedy block -- a crazed family sitcom

called "The Torkelsons" and a hospital half hour called "Nurses" -- looked strong.

But there were a lot of questions about a Friday night that's led off by two news shows, Jane Pauley's "Real Life" and "Expose, that did nothing on Sunday. And a sensitive hour drama about race relations in a small Southern town in the 1950s called "I'll Fly Away" looked as if it would need a lot more protection than it's going to get on Tuesday nights at 8 o'clock.

And perhaps the most important new show on NBC's slate, James Garner's return to prime time in a half hour called "Man of the People" that will go Sundays at 8 o'clock and is being counted on to change NBC's fortunes on that most-watched night, appeared competent but didn't garner many laughs.

Perhaps the oddest moment of the afternoon was a brief closed-circuit address from President Bush from the White House. After general accolades to broadcasters and advertisers for community service, Bush launched into a partisan address that strongly attacked the Congress for inaction on a number of administration initiatives, though most of this audience was more concerned with how much they can get for a 30-second spot in "Love Connection" in the fall.

Actually, the very setting of this affiliates' gathering highlighted the changes in network television. Not that Carnegie Hall was any comedown,

but usually the network presents its prime time schedule in New York to the advertising community and then gathers its affiliates in some vacation spot for a similar show. Combining the two did what everybody is trying to do in television these days -- save money.

Money provides the choreography for the very delicate dance the network and its affiliates do these days. For instance, NBC told a morning closed-door session that "The Tonight Show" will now start at 11:35, which will probably allow most of its affiliates to sell another 90 seconds of commercial time in their extended late news.

Of course, if NBC didn't do something, it was probably faced with widespread pre-emptions of "Tonight" by affiliates that could make more money running syndicated programming in late night.

And NBC and its affiliates are keeping a close eye on ratings in Indianapolis this summer. The Indianapolis NBC affiliate is taking the programs live, showing them from 7 to 10 and then putting on its local news.

There has been a lot of pressure on the networks to move prime time to 7 to 10, as it is in the central and mountain time zones, particularly from West Coast affiliates who claim that changing lifestyles are sending their viewers to bed earlier.

Now, the idea has also caught on in the East as more and more local stations are eyeing the big audience available at 10 p.m. for a newscast. Then there's one idea gaining a bit of momentum, that NBC just program 8 to 10 p.m. every night, go under the 14 hours of prime time programming per week that is the FCC definition of a network, which would open up the possibility of purchase by a studio.

One likely buyer in that scenario is Paramount. In which case NBC would once again be run by Brandon Tartikoff.

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