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The Peacock Comes Home To Roost

It must have been a heck of a Christmas at the ol' Littlefield house.

Warren Littlefield -- the sinister programming genius behind NBC's cavalcade of "Must See TV" hits -- was probably sitting in front of a roaring fire, wearing that comfy sweater Lea Thompson had knitted him, and reflecting on the year that was.

All in all, Warren must have thought as he sipped his egg nog and stroked his impish beard, it was a pretty good year. Oh, sure, there were the low moments. Networks were losing viewers as fast as they could slam that rental from Blockbuster into the ol' VHS or dial in the all pro-wrestling channel on DirecTV. NBC's new fall offerings were generally greeted with yawns of indifference from the vast but shrinking North American viewing audience. And the late Brandon Tartikoff -- just before shuffling off his mortal coil -- had called poor, misunderstood Warren "a cockroach" during a deathbed interview.

And nobody -- not even sinister programming geniuses -- enjoy being taunted by the dead.

But with another gulp of egg nog, Warren pushed those dark thoughts aside and reveled in happier reflections. His network's grip on the number one position was seemingly secure. Two-thirds of the English speaking world had tuned in to watch the live ER episode. The Super Bowl telecast in January promised to bring a convoy of advertisers, carrying bundles of money in their fleshy arms. And though cockroach he may be, Littlefield's place on the NBC throne was secure, while other networks left their programming chiefs twist slowly in the harsh winter wind.

Yes, Warren probably nodded, it had been a very good year. A Must See kind of year. And those were the very best years of all.

And after a few carols and maybe another glass or two of egg nog, it came time for Warren to open his presents. Why, John Lithgow got him a new scarf! And look -- a set of steak knives from Friends' Matthew Perry! Is that a new bowling ball in the package Kirstie Alley dropped off last night? And Tony Danza... hmmm, Tony didn't bring a gift this year. How curious.

And after all the other gifts had been opened -- some coffee mugs from George Clooney, a new shirt and tie combo from Brooke Shields -- it came time to open the gift from Jerry Seinfeld, star of the top-rated show in the country. Because Jerry's gift came in the biggest box of all...

Why, it's a gaping hole in the once powerful Thursday night schedule!

For those of you who don't follow the entertainment world -- and judging by the number of people who stumble across this site looking for nude photos of Tori Spelling, I'm going to have to assume that's every manjack of you -- Jerry Seinfeld announced on December 26 that he was pulling the plug on his popular, self-titled sitcom after seven years on the air.

A bearded imp of a man was not seen running through the streets of Burbank naked, crying out to the gods for deliverance. But he might as well have.

Over the past few years, more Americans have watched Seinfeld than any other program that airs in prime time. The show has broad global appeal... except, oddly enough, in Germany, where it was canceled this past year and replaced with -- hand to God -- reruns of Hogan's Heroes.

Because that Sgt. Schultz is a scream.

The show has taken seemingly innocent turns of phrase -- "master of my domain," "low talker," "not that there's anything wrong with that," "Soup Nazi" -- and converted them into cultural reference points, guaranteed to make total strangers howl with laughter at any social gathering.

A half-dozen Seinfeld episodes -- arguably a handful more -- are indisputable classics. The episode where Jerry and his numbskull pal George are mistakenly "outed." The one with the marble rye. Or the masturbation episode. Or the one with Teri Hatcher's breasts. And, of course, anything with Banya.

Not bad for a show that debuted as The Seinfeld Chronicles in late May, 1990 before it was shuttled around NBC's schedule like a low-fare commuter flight. But the show's early fans were steadfast, Seinfeld found a wider audience, and the Emmys and acclaim soon came a-callin'.

Seinfeld's lost a little off the fastball the past year or two. But even then, it's still more consistently funny and delivers more laughs per capita than any of the Jennys, Men Behaving Badlys and Single Guys could ever hope to scare up.

Which I guess is why I'm sort of glad that Seinfeld is walking away now, while the show's on top and the memory of some of its better offerings haven't dimmed. I still shudder at what happened to Cheers 'round about the eighth season. The jokes didn't seem as crisp. The actors seemed to go through the motions. And the show wheezed across the finish line like an asthmatic marathon runner, stopping every few blocks along the stretch run to suck on that oxygen tank for just a few more precious breaths.

Still, that's little comfort to the folks over at the Peacock Network. Seinfeld was the centerpiece of the all-powerful Thursday night lineup that also features such ratings titans as ER, the increasingly contemptible Friends and two forgettable comedies that might as well be test patterns. Yank Seinfeld out of the equation and the whole thing comes tumbling down like a tower of tiddlywinks assembled by a drunken chimpanzee.

Because like in the proverb, Warren Littlefield danced and made merry in the warm sunshine of high ratings. But now winter's coming, and we know a certain bearded squirrel who should have been hoarding up those nuts.

A few years back, Warren used the still-dominant Cheers to suck audiences into Seinfeld. But once the Show About Nothing developed legs of its own, Littlefield was unable to turn the trick again. Instead he used his ratings titan to shepherd along a string of forgettable shows -- The Single Guy, Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan, Union Square, Veronica's Closet. Some have stuck on the schedule, a fitting testimony to the theory that resistance is, eventually, futile. Others, once the aegis of Seinfeld was lifted away, were run through with the scimitar of public indifference.

And we all know how that can smart. Right, Jonathan Silverman?

With Seinfeld now taking its victory lap, runts of the litter like Union Square are about to find out just how inhospitable the Badlands can be without Jerry, George and Kramer riding point. And that bodes ill for the Must See TV universe.

You see, Warren and his band of Merry TV Men haven't produced a hit sitcom since 3rd Rock From the Sun, and that was some two years ago. What NBC has is a roster of aging hits -- Frasier, Mad About You -- a couple of entertaining but low rated series like Newsradio and schloads and schloads of interchangeable drek.

You can replace Seinfeld with Frasier on Thursdays... but at the risk of scrapping your Tuesday night edge. You can try to salvage the night by juggling Friends and Veronica's Closet... but at the risk of mucking up things even worse. Or you can try to prop up 3rd Rock as your cornerstone show... but at the risk of people saying, "You know, that Lithgow fella is really hammy."

Add it all up, and it's looking like a winter of discontent for bearded programming geniuses the world over. And I haven't even mentioned how much ER is asking for per episode next year.

Already, other networks are circling around NBC like packs of ravenous dogs. The November sweeps ended up a virtual dead heat between NBC and -- mirabile dictu! -- CBS. Granted, that's with CBS' lineup catering to doddering senior citizens and shut-ins, but Seinfeld's gold watch party probably hasn't slowed the holiday rush shipments of Pepto Bismol to Warren's Burbank bunker.

Still, I hope he enjoyed Matthew Perry's steak knives...


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