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Warren's Wasteland

Last Year: The Wine-Dark Mind of Warren Littlefield There's a moment in "Richard II" -- Shakespeare's sequel to "Richard" in which the title character has his long-awaited rematch with Apollo Creed -- where Richard more or less realizes that the jig is finally up. He's been outwitted by his enemies. He's let England fall in to disrepair. And he's about to be hacked to bits by Bolingbroke's henchmen. All in all, a crappy way to end a crappy reign as king. And Richard knows it.

"I have wasted time," he finally says. "And now doth Time waste me."

That's a pretty powerful line, when you think about. Just 10 words long, it encapsulates regret, anger, sorrow and a fatalistic resignation that the bill for years of neglect and waste is about to come due.

And it also may well be the ultimate epitaph for Warren Littlefield's career at NBC.

After all, so long as we're talking Shakespearean tragedy, why not a five-act play on the rise and fall of a sinister programming genius? Call it "The Tragedy of Warren, Prince of Burbank," and those of you with tears, prepare to shed them now. For it is the tale of a bearded imp who becomes ruler of a TV kingdom and through luck, craftiness and sheer promotional guile, builds a Must See TV empire.

But instead of nurturing his kingdom, Prince Warren of Burbank dillies and dallies and cavorts with the likes of The Single Guy and Fired Up. And before you can say "forsooth," Prince Warren's most valuable noble, the Duke of Seinfeld, has ridden off for greener pastures and the good prince's other once-great subjects have become tired and creaky.

Which brings us to the fatal Act V -- last Monday's unveiling of NBC's fall schedule) for the 1998-99 TV season -- where Warren strode up to center stage and spoke the six words that, like King Richard before him, foretold his demise:

We're adding another night of "Dateline!"

Perhaps this isn't the year that the NBC dirigible runs into the light standard and crashes to the earth in a flaming ball of deadly gases. But it's only a matter of time, really. Look at the Thursday night schedule -- once thought of as NBC's impregnable fortress. But now with Seinfeld gone, Fox, for one, is licking its lips at the thought of carving away some of the Peacock Network's audience by moving King of the Hill or Ally McBeal to, say, Thursdays at nine.

On the surface, of course, all is well at NBC. Frasier's moved in to the old Seinfeld slot, and it should draw comparable numbers. ER is still the second-most-watched show in America. Just Shoot Me is building an audience, and after some stumbles out of the gate, Working is not as tepid as it once was. And, of course, the NBC suits spared themselves a long and bloody jihad at the hands of TeeVee by renewing NewsRadio -- even if the show continues to change time slots quicker than some folks change underwear.

But there's trouble in paradise. Great shows like ER and Homicide have gotten spotty over the last few months. Mad About You is showing its age. Friends is tired. And Suddenly Susan is... about as good as it's ever been! And therein lies the problem.

Not counting America's brief fascination with 3rd Rock From the Sun back in 1996, NBC hasn't had a hit to speak of since Friends and ER debuted in 1994. That's an awful long time to wander through the desert without a water break, and it looks Warren and the boys are about to go mad with thirst.

What's more, those aging hits are commanding an increasing amount of greenbacks. ER's price tag is in the tens of millions of dollars range. Wheelbarrows full of cash are routinely emptied out at the feet of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, just for the honor of having them go through the motions for another year. And each of the Friends has enough cash on hand to buy and sell peons like you and me.

With show prices going up and network audiences going down, what's a bearded programming genius to do to keep his network afloat? Tell Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley to lace 'em up because they're going on for a fifth night, that's what.

But just slapping another edition of Dateline wherever you happen to have a hole in your line-up -- Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in this case -- gives the impression that in the ongoing war to entertain America, NBC has just signed an unconditional surrender at the Appomattox courthouse.

"We're fresh out of ideas," NBC may as well have told affiliates and advertisers on Monday. "But in the meantime, here's Stone and Jane with an update on Princess Diana."

Need more proof that the NBC idea-mobile is running on fumes? Sundays at 7 p.m. will be occupied for the time being by what the Peacock Network is billing as a series of "sports-related specials." Great! That'll certainly fit right in with NBC's pro football coverage which...


Of course, in glancing at some of the new shows that did make the final cut for the fall, maybe we'll soon be begging NBC for a sixth night of Dateline. After all, bogus exposes on exploding GM trucks and where-are-they-now features on Andrew Cunanan are schloads more entertaining than yet another workplace sitcom or a half-hour Friends knockoff about horny Gen X'ers.

Of the six new shows that do not feature Stone Phillips or Ahmad Rashad, only two seem promising at this point. There's Encore! Encore!, which stars Nathan Lane as a jerky opera singer who returns home to the family vineyard in Napa. Lane's a very talented fellow and the show is produced by the folks who give us Frasier.

The other interesting newcomer is from ER producer John Wells -- a Friday night drama called Trinity. I base the supposition that "Trinity" will not blow solely on the involvement of Wells, a man who generally does not associate himself with crap.

But NBC's description of the characters in the show -- which centers around the lives and loves of a close-knit Irish family from the working class neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen -- is enough to grip me with the Fear. Trinity focuses on three brothers. There's Bobby, the detective working the mean, working-class streets of Hell's Kitchen. There's Liam, the labor organizer who may or may not be in bed with the mob. And there's Kevin, an unorthodox parish priest.

For those of you hoping that Trinity would go four-for-four in the cliched Irishman department, I'm sad to report that there is no brother named Lucky, a cherubic leprechaun who beguiles children with tales of the magically delicious cereal placed in his care. Perhaps during sweeps week.

So Encore! Encore! and the Paddy-laden Trinity look to be the best of the bunch. And the rest? The usual assortment of warmed-over ideas, retread actors and cookie-cutter premises that passes for creativity in TV nowadays. You have:

  • Conrad Bloom) -- the workplace comedy about a horny Gen X'er (Mark Feuerstein, sprung from the Hell of Fired Up) who balances his job at an ad agency with his horrific social life. The show attempts to thaw out the cryogenically frozen career of Linda Lavin.

  • All My Life) -- the relationship comedy about a horny Gen X'er (Christina Applegate, trying to atone for the excesses of Married: With Children) trying to balance raising her bastard son, living with her layabout brothers and taking guff from her crotchety old man with her go-nowhere job as a waitress.

  • Will & Grace -- the relationship comedy about a couple of horny Gen X'ers (Eric McCormack and Debra Messing) who live together balancing their respective careers as a lawyer and an interior designer with the fact that Will is gay. Think of it as Friends with four fewer friends. And, of course, with Chandler dating men.

All I know about these shows is contained in the press releases NBC hastily slapped on its Web site). For all of my snide commentary, every single manjack of them could turn out to be a rib-tickling delight, a reason to turn the TV on to NBC and then bury the remote control out in the backyard next to all that gold I've been hoarding. And if this came to pass, no one would be happier than me. Except for maybe Linda Lavin.

But given NBC's recent track record, I'm not terribly confident. NBC trotted out nine new shows this time last year. Only Working and the labored Veronica's Closet are back for the sophomore season. And Veronica's Closet is about to find out that it isn't very pretty what a town without pity -- or in this case, a schedule without Seinfeld -- can do.

Not that NBC is overly concerned. After all, Littlefield pointed out Monday, HBO spent millions to make what may have been the best program on TV last year, From The Earth To The Moon. But only three million people watched -- about the same amount who tune in to watch Moesha, The Warren sneered.

Because after all, why pay up for good shows when you can get the same kind of ratings with Brooke Shields and Judd Nelson pissing over themselves every week?

Or as satanic West Coast programming chief Don Ohlymeyer said, "There's a lot of negativity flowing and we have only ourselves to blame. Our biggest mistake has been to allow misconceptions to take hold. The only true measure is adults 18-54. Isn't that the real goal of advertisers?"

That line of thinking is the only explanation I can think of for NBC's sixth and final offering, Wind on Water. The show centers around two brothers who give up their career as world-class surfers to help run the struggling family cattle ranch on the big island of Hawaii. The ranch, you see, is being targeted by a rival rancher who wants to buy it up and convert it to a tourist site -- tourists apparently flocking to the Aloha state for its many and varied cattle ranches. So the two brothers hit the extreme sports circuit, surfing and helicopter skiing and wake boarding to earn money to save the ol' homestead. And along the way, they bicker and quarrel over their mutual romantic interest who also happens to be the daughter of the rival rancher!

Hand to God, that's what the show is about, folks.

Or, as hailed by the NBC publicity juggernaut, Wind on Water combines "a 'Romeo & Juliet' love story, a vengeful family rivalry, a tropical paradise and some of the most 'extreme' footage ever seen on television" to give the North American viewing audience a mixture of "Melrose Place and ESPN's Extreme Games."

Oh, yes. It also stars Bo Derek) as the surfer dudes' widowed mother.

I'll just pause for a second while you wipe up that coffee you just spit all over your monitor. Done? Good.

Yes, that's the same Bo Derek who first came to the nation's attention in "10," who brought the nation to its knees in "Bolero" and who made the nation cry out for to its gods for death in "Ghosts Can't Do It)."

And her love interest is played by Lee Horsley, TV's Matt Houston.

Damn! There goes that coffee again. Try and be more careful, OK?

Even in my wildest flights of fancy, I could never imagine that a network would air a show about two surfing siblings shooting a curl to save their Hawaiian cattle ranch as Bo Derek and Lee Horsley make puppy eyes at one another. Yet, here we are, having this conversation.

And I'm not even going to mention the fact that the pranksters in NBC's publicity department are billing Wind on Water as "a sexy family drama." Because you folks would never buy that.

Five nights of Dateline. Horny Gen X'ers. Bo Derek. Mix 'em altogether, heat to a roiling boil and serve, and you've got yourself a recipe for disaster, Must See-style.

And in retrospect, maybe "Richard II" isn't the Shakespearean play that's most symbolic of Warren Littlefield's impending doom. After giving NBC's new fall schedule the once-over, "A Comedy Of Errors" seems the more appropriate choice.


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