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Lousy Players? Fire the Coach!

October 27, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY

People probably wonder what it would be like to run a television network--pulling in a seven-figure salary, hanging out with stars, flying around on corporate jets and making cameo appearances on "The Tonight Show."

Then again, that overlooks the days when you're ridiculed by TV critics, vilified by special-interest groups, berated by producers whose shows have been canceled, or pushed out because the network didn't generate enough new hits to perpetuate the hundreds of millions of dollars in profits your bosses had come to expect.

A veteran producer, recalling the good old days of television, recently described network executives as "Christmas help"--people who came in for a brief period of time, then moved on to something else.

After nearly two decades at NBC Entertainment, the last eight of those heading the division, Christmas has ended for Warren Littlefield. He is being replaced as president by Scott Sassa, who currently oversees the television stations NBC owns. Littlefield will segue into a producing deal with the network, but to paraphrase someone else who enjoyed a long association with NBC, that loosely translates to "Thanks for the memories . . . and don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Littlefield occupied his position long enough to see 11 counterparts fill the same seat at ABC, CBS and Fox during his tenure. Perhaps, in the ever-changing world of network television, that was too long.

Indeed, running a TV network is similar, more than anything, to coaching a football or basketball team. Your star players (in this case, popular series) have relatively brief careers, and if you don't find new stars as those existing ones age--and begin costing increasingly more under rich free-agent deals--your run at the top will invariably come to an end.

Like few executives before him, Littlefield rode the roller coaster down, up and potentially down again. NBC plummeted from first place in the prime-time standings to third place during his second year running the entertainment unit, a job he inherited from the late Brandon Tartikoff, who had an unerring knack for knowing when to make a career move.

Rumors that Littlefield would be a casualty of NBC's failure were rampant then, but he weathered the storm. For two years, NBC languished in third place. When NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer was brought in over Littlefield in 1993, reports of his demise surfaced yet again.

To the surprise of many, Ohlmeyer opted to keep Littlefield, and the network began to exhibit signs of life. A marginally rated show named "Seinfeld" actually began to look like a promising replacement for "Cheers," and in the fall of 1993 successfully supplanted it, teamed with the "Cheers" spinoff "Frasier."

The next year, NBC introduced two new series that gradually blossomed into smashes, "Friends" and "ER." NBC reclaimed the ratings lead the following season, providing Littlefield--and those who decided to keep him--a sense of vindication, as did installing Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show."

Not everything worked out so well. Despite pummeling competitors with its "Must See TV" Thursday lineup, NBC spent years suiting up rookies like "Suddenly Susan," "Caroline in the City" and the since-canceled "Fired Up" and "The Naked Truth," putting them in the lineup behind "Seinfeld" without establishing a worthy successor.

When Jerry Seinfeld finally and abruptly decided to hang up his sneakers, the sense of urgency around the network became palpable. It was clear NBC hadn't uncovered enough new hits to easily fill the void, prompting the network to pay a desperate sum to retain "ER." Even with that show locked up, its first-place status and monstrous profits (in excess of $500 million last year) both show signs of being in jeopardy.

Some critics have charged that NBC's ratings rebirth fostered arrogance among its executives. The network began to push producers around, at the same time filling its lineup with look-alike comedies, seemingly predicated on the assumption that "Must See TV" could be, in essence, whenever NBC told you it was. That hubris peaked with an unprecedented 18-comedy lineup last season.

Of course, half the job in the entertainment industry is doing your job and the other half entails running away from failure and claiming credit for success. With so many involved on the production and network side, a dozen people will claim credit for shows like "ER" and "Friends." It's hard to find anyone eager to put NBC comedies starring Martin Short, Gene Wilder and Dabney Coleman--which all came and went the same year those shows premiered--on their resumes.

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