Plop! The Mighty NBC Lands in the E.R.

When you think of Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC Entertainment, think of Tevye the dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof , who found ambiguity in all things.

On one hand, his network is still No. 1. On the other, NBC seems to have just finished second to the patchwork schedule of chafing-at-the-bit, insurgent CBS in the November competition for household supremacy. On one hand, Mr. Littlefield broadcasts the two most-watched shows on television: E.R. and Seinfeld . On the other, both are threatening to leave him- E.R. by crossing the street to CBS or whoever wants to pay $10 million an episode, Seinfeld by taking early retirement. On one hand, he’s the most successful executive in TV. On the other, he’s in the Dangerfieldian position of being constantly mocked, questioned and second-guessed. On one hand, at seven years at NBC, he is closing in on keeping his position longer than any entertainment head in modern TV history. (Brandon Tartikoff held his job for 11 years.) On the other, he’s constantly hearing that he is history.

In other words, as a network executive, he’s as shaky as … a fiddler on the roof.

Paul Simms tells an anecdote that may illustrate why.he has enemies and admirers in Hollywood. Last spring, a Rolling Stone writer profiling the News Radio executive producer quoted him calling Mr. Littlefield “a cocksucker”; Rolling Stone lucked into being there when Mr. Simms was upset after a meeting he’d had with the NBC programmer. Mr. Littlefield did not cancel Mr. Simms’ middling-ratings show. And at News Radio ‘s wrap party last spring, Mr. Littlefield himself came down to deliver the renewal news. Mr. Simms had fallen asleep on a couch in his office and was late to the party. Unable to wait anymore, Mr. Littlefield left a note saying that the show had been renewed which began, “Hey cocksucker.” Mr. Simms said that the incident changed his perspective on Mr. Littlefield-who had good reason to kill the show, based on its ratings. (Mr. Simms added that he kept the note as a memento.)

But the sweeps period-the 28-day championship competition among the networks for advertising dollars-ends Nov. 26, and the first results are coming in. People aren’t watching the big three networks-the number of Americans watching them is 32 percent lower than it was 10 years ago. ABC, courtesy of its demoted programming chief, Jamie Tarses, the Ellen boycott and the Nothing Sacred brouhaha, got the most attention. Fox did better with the most flash and trash. That was expected.

But something else happened: For the first time in three years, NBC had lost the fall ratings battle to the insurgent CBS. Driven by a tremendous win by a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation starring Matthew Modine that gave CBS its highest rating on a made-for-TV movie in almost seven years, CBS was declared the imminent winner and sweeps champ by Daily Variety . CBS! The frumpy network of middlebrow favorites like Touched by an Angel and old war horses like 60 Minutes and Murphy Brown . Behind the scenes, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that despite its smooth demographics (NBC rules among 18- to 49-year-olds) and the stupendous profits that go in tribute to parent General Electric, NBC is showing what it might look like in a not-so-distant future when Seinfeld , already winding down, retires, and E.R. goes to the highest bidder: Fox or even CBS, if NBC won’t pay its producers $10 million per episode.

“Anything less than a 15 [rating] is a disaster for them,” said one network producer. “They’re hurt by Melrose Place -they want the same audience-by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and by football. Sunday night, it’s like it’s dark from 7 to 9. Tuesday, O.K., a strong second or weak first. Wednesday is a black hole until Dick Wolf saves them at 10 [with Law & Order ]. Thursday night is the best in the history of television. This summer, they’re going to get clobbered on Friday night. Saturday, they misjudged totally. They thought the strength of the schedule was Profiler , but it started late because [its star] Ally Walker is pregnant and couldn’t start shooting until September.”

It may not be tsoris time at NBC, but at the very least it’s November, and not a warm Los Angeles El Niño November but a cold Wake-Up!-We’re-Owned-by-G.E.-Which-Is-Run-by-Neutron-Jack-Welch kind of November. And the NBC executives, led by president Robert Wright, NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer and Mr. Littlefield, have to feel a bracing chill from the east.

Mr. Littlefield in particular is in terrible trouble, partly because he’s No. 2 to Mr. Ohlmeyer’s No. 1, partly because a lot of people in Hollywood don’t feel constrained about mouthing off about him. One person used the word “flea” to describe him. NBC former president and chief executive Fred Silverman called him “arrogant.”

“What kills Warren is that he’s not one of the guys,” said a top television agent who admires Mr. Littlefield. “He doesn’t care about being one of the boys’ club. It doesn’t matter whether he does a good job or a bad job. When it comes to Saturday, he’s not out on the golf course. He’s with his family in a restaurant. You hear a lot about how he’s cold and aloof and all that crap. But he’s not any more awful than anyone else.”

Clearly, he and Mr. Ohlmeyer are partners, Mr. Littlefield being willing and able to do take the pitch meetings, read the scripts, return the phone calls that Mr. Ohlmeyer doesn’t want to trouble himself with. (Young agents in Hollywood point out that Mr. Littlefield returns their calls promptly.) But their Plan A, turning NBC into a comedy boutique, obviously didn’t work. With the exception of a lull in the early 90′s, NBC has, since its turnaround in 1984, been the network that seemed to best manage to achieve critical success and dominant numbers.

And Mr. Littlefield, who has made his career as a comedy nerd-”a comedy D-boy” in L.A.-talk -now faces losing Seinfeld to the ether and E.R. to Fox or CBS. Is it time to go to Plan B?

Not if you talk to the advertisers. NBC makes $5.2 billion in profits for G.E., and its revenues-from its advertising rates-are largely dependent on the ad rates it can charge based on its audience size, and the youth, sex and income makeup of that audience. For years now, since The Cosby Show and Cheers made NBC America’s dominant network-in the sense that CBS owned the 50′s and early 60′s and ABC owned the 70′s-with the 90′s advent of Friends , Seinfeld and Frasier , NBC has had what passes in network television for magnificent demographics. And since November 1994, the network has amassed eight straight sweeps victories.

“NBC is doing great. I think everyone’s very happy with the performance of the new programs,” said Paul Schulman, head of the Manhattan-based ad agency which bears his name. “True, the real numbers are down from a year ago, but that’s not a big deal. The real problem for NBC for a change was that the miniseries didn’t work. But Tuesday and Thursday are still enormous successes.” Indeed, NBC’s Thursday night of Nov. 20 drew twice the number of viewers of any other networks.

But that staggering lead was cut to the quick this ratings period. Yes, CBS won the miniseries wars with Vanessa Redgrave and Nastassja Kinski’s trash triumph in Bella Mafia . (NBC played Ed Wood with its disastrous House of Frankenstein .) But when the two networks were matched up show to show, NBC, based on past wins, should have left CBS standing in the gate. It didn’t.

So, with E.R. , Seinfeld and the fact that for the first time, NBC has fewer households watching it than are watching CBS, Mr. Littlefield and Mr. Ohlmeyer have some hard thinking to do. Specifically at issue is the network’s need to legitimize hits before or behind Seinfeld , E.R. , Friends and Frasier . So is its choice to move Suddenly Susan , Fired Up! , Men Behaving Badly and The Naked Truth -formerly Seinfeld -night fake hits-to anchor positions this season, where they quickly sank.

Even people who do business with NBC, people who are treated like kings by the network, are grumbling about weak links at NBC. Said one senior agent at a major television agency, “The schedule this year is the most vulnerable it’s been in some time. If Seinfeld doesn’t come back next year, you’ve got a big hole. They’ve got too many marginal shows. Some of them are even ours.”

If you’re Warren Littlefield, it’s time for Plan B. As one confidant of Mr. Ohlmeyer warned at the start of this season, “If NBC falls apart this fall, the finger can be pointed directly at Warren Littlefield … Because he’s the one who went to the mat for this particular schedule.”

That schedule was considered a big gamble last May when it was introduced because it was overloaded with situation comedies-18. Eighteen situation comedies pretty much defines a network schedule (they usually run 12 a week), but NBC has made the situation comedy its particular trademark, and its biggest ones were so big that Mr. Littlefield felt they could float a schedule.

The idea of four nights of sitcoms was risky but rooted in financial realities. TV movies and miniseries are wretchedly expensive, while a sitcom is not just cheap to make but can grow, as Cosby or Roseanne , to become an industry unto itself. “Look, the financial guys would like for it to work,” said one producer. “It makes more sense to do them because they’re cheaper to produce, and you collect more money for advertising. Dramas and movies are expensive to produce.” Still, when Mr. Littlefield announced the fall 1997 schedule, however, industry analysts had a jolt: The entertainment president had tried a similar strategy in the early 90′s, only to crash and burn.

Things were so bad at NBC by the end of 1992 that Bill Cosby was making mischief by attempting to form a consortium to purchase the network. Even Mr. Welch was engaging in serious talks to dump NBC.

Enter Don Ohlmeyer. It was Christmastime 1992, when the onetime NBC president and chief executive Fred Silverman and other television executives emeriti began receiving calls from Robert Wright, the president of NBC, asking who to bring in to pull NBC out of its free fall.

“We had four or five different conversations during Christmas,” Mr. Silverman said. “He put it on the basis that ‘We’ve got to make a change.’ I said, ‘It’s about time.’ I don’t think Warren knew anything about it.”

On Feb. 3, 1993, Mr. Ohlmeyer was given the network to fix. That Mr. Littlefield was allowed to stay remains to this day one of the most speculated-upon topics in television circles. In a taped conversation for this article, NBC’s entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, who died in August 1997, said he had spoken to Mr. Ohlmeyer about it. “Don told me once, ‘Look, I don’t know where half the bodies are buried,’” said Tartikoff. “‘I’ll keep him around for a while,’ and after a while, he said, ‘Well, this isn’t bad. Warren does a lot of the menial stuff. He organizes the meetings. He’s a great out box. In other words, he does all the shit you don’t want to do. I mean that he’s very administratively sound. If you give him a list of 20 things that you want done, he will not go home until those things are done.’ And finally Don said, ‘Look, if he leaves, I’m probably going to have to find somebody just like him.’”

Mr. Ohlmeyer, once brought in, focused on promotion, Jay Leno and comedy, (bringing to NBC Carsey-Warner’s Third Rock From the Sun ) after ABC passed. Mr. Ohlmeyer and Mr. Littlefield worked well as a team, and the payoff was spectacular. Neither Mr. Ohlmeyer’s outspoken support of his friend, O.J. Simpson, departing NBC executive Jamie Tarses’ claim that he sexually harassed her, nor a profoundly uncomplimentary Wall Street Journal profile detailing bad behavior by Mr. Ohlmeyer could deflate NBC’s success. Nor, for that matter, did Mr. Ohlmeyer’s stay in December 1996 at the Betty Ford Clinic. (His friends-among them NBC chief executive Robert Wright-had run an intervention in order to convince the executive that he had a drinking problem.)

While Mr. Ohlmeyer was away, Mr. Littlefield attempted to emerge from his boss’ shadow. Mr. Littlefield had a big investment in coming into his own: He had spent years in Brandon Tartikoff’s shadow and then, when he finally got the title for his own, too much time trying to prove he was more than an overpromoted lackey. Mr. Ohlmeyer’s absence provided him with the opportunity. What did he do with it? He launched a flotilla of situation comedies, then tested them, one by one, after Seinfeld : Suddenly Susan , Fired Up , The Naked Truth all had the same protected time slot-9:30 P.M. on Thursday at some point or another. Then Mr. Littlefield decided to let them fend for themselves on Monday. Their first week out, the shows deflated by nearly half.

“You know, the rule of thumb in sitcoms is to hire funny people,” said one source, but, he said, Mr. Littlefield has been hiring a “whole succession” of beautiful women-Brooke Shields, Jenny McCarthy, Lea Thompson-who are “not funny.” The problem, said a veteran TV agent, is that Mr. Littlefield has “too much experience, and in this business just because you’ve tried it so many times and seen it fail, you don’t try it anymore. You get stale.”

And no matter what the advertisers say, there have been several high-profile screw-ups at NBC. The network had a chance to get in on the ground floor of what would become The Rosie O’Donnell Show . Eager to do a talk show based on the West Coast, Ms. O’Donnell did a week of tests, but sources said that Mr. Littlefield was underimpressed. The rest, of course, is history-Ms. O’Donnell landed at Warner Brothers, which is syndicating the show, and for which the NBC-owned and -operated affiliates have to pay through the nose.

The network’s negotiations for renewing Frasier were protracted, but those for Seinfeld became media circuses, with the negotiations dragging on so long-the producers of the show eventually got $5.5 million per episode-that the show’s leaving NBC started to be posited in the trades and daily newspapers.

Then came the E.R. debacle. It’s particularly rich, as the show was the baby of CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves, now Mr. Littlefield’s titular rival and a man who’d really like to get his show back.

From the beginning, said a source, “Warren didn’t get E.R , and in the scheduling meetings, he fought like hell to have it on Friday night at 10 and move Homicide: Life on the Streets to Thursday night at 10 because he thought E.R. was a flop. He fought and fought and fought.” It was only when Leslie Moonves, then the president of Warner Brothers Television, which owns the show, went over Mr. Littlefield’s head to Mr. Ohlmeyer and he decreed the show would be on at 10 on Thursday night, that the show found its current time slot. But it turned, of course, into an instrument of destruction for Les,” the source said.

Now, E.R. is in the last year of a four-year contract with NBC. The cost of the show is expected to be about $500 million for a two-year deal. So far, CBS and Fox seem to have the money to get it, and Mr. Moonves, who developed the show, has sentimental reasons do so, not to mention the momentum his network now seems to have. The question is, will NBC actually allow itself to lose the show to CBS? The fate of E.R. will either make CBS, or break NBC.