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Bird On A Wire: Can New Chief Steady NBC?

Warren Littlefield finally getting his day in the sun – just in time for a cloudburst. The NBC Entertainment prexy has long labored under the shadow of Brandon (“Gone But Not Forgotten”) Tartikoff, who turned in his spurs at NBC for the chance to run Paramount’s studio.

Now it’s Littlefield’s turn. But with ratings down, revenues off and cost-cutting dictates from parent company General Electric, many question whether even Brandon, the boy wonder, could stem the web’s current slide. In that sense, they say, Tartikoff picked a good time to get out of Burbank.

Some insiders believe this is Littlefield’s opportunity to step out of Tartikoff’s shadow and put his stamp on the network; others wonder if he knows the controls well enough to pull the peacock web out of a tailspin.

“There are some of us who think that Warren can and will rise to the occasion. Perhaps living outside of Brandon’s shadow will make it easier for him,” says Leslie Moonves, prexy of Lorimar Television, the largest supplier of network tv shows. “He’s a fair and intelligent leader and deserves a chance.”

Others in the biz say there’s no way Littlefield and company, lacking their former boss’ acumen, can steer their web out of its current troubles.

“A lot of balls were fumbled while Brandon was away,” says one source familiar with the recent renewal negotiations. “Then Brandon returned and picked them up.”

He’s referring to earlier this year when Tartikoff was sidelined after he and his daughter, Calla, had a near-fatal car crash. During that period, renewal negotiations between the web and two of its most important franchises, “Cheers” and “The Tonight Show,” hit snags. Tartikoff returned to the network, took over the negotiations and closed both deals.

“You always came in the room with Brandon knowing he was a dealmaker, not a deal breaker,” says Johnny Carson’s agent, Ed Hookstratten. “He’s a showman in a business where there are too many lawyers and accountants. He understands the mechanics of what makes a deal work.”

Others note that upon Tartikoff’s return to the web, he began second-guessing his lieutenants and greenlighting development of shows that they’d put on hold.

Last July, when Littlefield was named Entertainment prez and Tarktikoff took over the newly created position of chairman of the NBC Entertainment Group, the idea was that Littlefield would be in charge of programming the network. But at last March’s pilot development meeting, it was clear Tartikoff was back running the show. It was hardly a vote of confidence for Littlefield.

“Brandon really fooled us,” says Saatchi & Saatchi senior v.p. Betsy Frank, who was at the presentation. “He was clearly the guy in charge and looked like he’d be in charge for a while to come.”

Now, Tartikoff’s departure underlines doubts about the well-being of NBC. While the network is still number one in primetime, its ratings slipped by 13% this past season. And several of the network’s longtime hits, including “The Cosby Show” and “Golden Girls,” experienced double digit declines last season.

Paramount, too, has had its woes of late, including a dearth of hit films, but Tartikoff clearly sees more opportunity at the film studio, which has an extremely profitable firstrun tv syndication arm.

“Paramount has the resources to play in virtually all the games there are to be played in,” says Tartikoff of his new job, which starts July 1. Sources say Tartikoff’s departure was in part due to his frustration with General Electric.

“I don’t think he was getting enough support from GE,” says a network source. “They were cutting ad budgets and development budgets. They reduced the size of the advertising department, the press department, the promotion department, station relations.”

One source notes that GE tried to cut back NBC’s primetime advertising budget during a recent sweeps period. When Tartikoff protested, GE reportedly told him that it would return the money but that he would have to take it out of his development budget.

There are those who question whether, even if Littlefield and crew do have the programming savvy to right the web, their corporate parent General Electric will give them the tools they need to do it.

Some observers see the budget constraints at the Peacock web as signs of GE’s growing disillusionment with the network business.

“GE likes its businesses to work in the Harvard B-school mode,” says one Wall Street analyst. “GE likes its divisions to be No. 1 and to be able to predict quarter quarter growth. It doesn’t like the vagaries of the network business. And losing Tartikoff might only push GE further in the direction of letting the network go.”

GE and NBC executives have issued a stream of denials that they are in the process of divesting themselves of a part or all of their network. But speculation persists that Tartikoff’s move is a prelude to a deal being struck with Paramount.

Tartikoff acknowledges that the subject of an eventual acquisition of the Peacock net did come up in his negotiations with Paramount representatives, though “not at great length.”

Former NBC CEO Grant Tinker, who terms the Tartikoff appointment a “master-stroke for Paramount,” muses that “if GE wants to get rid of all or part of NBC, he is a guy who provides a bridge over which to cross.”

But Paramount major domo Martin Davis is adamant that no deal is in the making. “It’s pure nonsense,” he says, ” the figment of someone else’s imagination.”

But when asked if his move to Paramount may be the harbinger of an NBC-Paramount merger, Tartikoff says, “Part of me is very attracted to the idea of having a distribution system to get our product shown. At the same time I’m relieved not to have to put together another schedule.”

That job now falls to Littlefield, who may be breathing a sigh of relief himself. “Not to belittle the current team at NBC,” says ABC Entertainment topper Bob Iger. “But it will be a relief not to have to compete with Brandon any more.”

Jim Benson in Hollywood contributed to this report.

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