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The Peacock in Winter

There's a scene in "Goodfellas" -- the best picture of 1990 regardless of how many shiny metal trinkets the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences showers upon Kevin Costner and his three-hour horsie flick -- where Joe Pesci is on top of the world. A mid-level hoodlum in the New York mob, our Joe is about to become a "made" man. That means, to paraphrase Ray Liotta's omnipresent narration, that Joe Pesci can mess with anybody while nobody can mess with him.

So Joe is understandably chipper in the scene where he and two ancient mob chieftains arrive at the house where the big ol' "Let's Make Joe Pesci a Made Guy" ceremony is ostensibly to take place. He's cracking wise with the two ancient mob chieftains, and they're laughing at his jokes, and all the Mafioso seem to be having such a good time. Until one of them opens the door where the rest of the crime family is supposedly waiting... and there's nobody there.

"Oh, n..." Joe Pesci says, and he can't even get that last syllable out of his mouth before someone pumps a single shot from a .45 caliber pistol into his skull.

"And that's that," one of the ancient mob chieftains croaks, as the one-time contents of Joe Pesci's skull leave a stain on the hardwood floor that all the Mr. Clean in the world can't undo.

I like to think that Warren Littlefield's recent dismissal as the programming chief of NBC was a little more dignified than that. But not by much.

In case you've forgotten -- and hell, I wouldn't blame you one bit, since I'm only getting around to writing about this now, six weeks after the fact -- NBC handed one-time evil programming genius Warren Littlefield his walking papers in late October. Both the network and Littlefield tried to put a positive spin on the move: the Bearded One was acting on a long-dormant yearning to step aside, and NBC would make his wish come true by giving him a lucrative production deal. Very touching, very warm. Presumably, everyone hugged and had themselves a good, long cry.

But make no mistake -- maybe Littlefield was thinking of jumping ship, but it was NBC that shoved him over the prow. As for the lucrative production deal, that sounds nicer on a press release than "Littlefield, NBC's entertainment president for the last eight years, was then dragged out of the building kicking and screaming, before he was buried alive in an unmarked grave in a Potter's field."

At first blush, Littlefield's quick exit would seem like a surprise. Love him or hate him, he was still the head of the top-rated network on television. His missteps were many, but no more than a programmer like Jamie Tarses makes before, say, noon. When a network TV executive fails, it's usually a prolonged and spectacular flame-out, a supernova of incompetence visible to the naked eye for light years. Guys at the top of the heap generally aren't kicked to the bottom in the time it takes to order a sandwich.

And make no mistake -- of his Big Four programming cohorts, Warren Littlefield was the most successful. Sure, Warren took his lumps here... perhaps more than a human being not accused of a war crime should have to endure. We taunted everything about him, from his cherubic beard to his inexplicable kinship with Jonathan Silverman. We railed against Warren's hubris and spoke of the ratings carnage to come. We gave no quarter and expected none in return. And Warren, always quick with a devastating riposte, responded in kind by saddling us with Suddenly Susan.

A crafty archenemy, that Littlefield.

But despite all the Bo Dereks and the Fired Ups and those insufferable "Must See TV" jingles, Warren managed to do what few before him could pull off and what many after him can only aspire to. He survived an initial faceplant that would have destroyed lesser careers to pull NBC back to the top of the ratings heap, where it stayed for the better part of four years. You and I and the kids at the WB can sneer at Warren all we want, but Littlefield had a pretty good sense for what the vast North American viewing audience wanted to see and, three times out of five, he was usually able to give it to them. That merits some acknowledgment, if not necessarily dumb admiration.

All the same, I come to bury Littlefield, not to praise him. And if the evil that men do lives on while the good is oft interred with their bones, then what can we say about a man who tried to turn Jenny McCarthy into the Gen X version of Lucille Ball? I mean, after we make fun of his beard again?

Warren departs because of a series of high-profile blunders, each one more damaging than the last. First, NBC lost Seinfeld without having a similar ratings monster warming up in the bullpen. Then, it lost its football contract, leaving the Peacock Network without a high-profile conduit through which to advertise its increasing lackluster programs. That forced Warren to violently overpay to keep ER, which now commands about $13 million an episode. It's still the highest-rated drama on TV... but NBC staffers are now being paid in pesos and kept alive with cans of soup to make ends meet.

But the greatest Littlefield sin is one of omission rather than commission. Through shrewd maneuvering and a barrel full of luck, Littlefield had built up a strong weekly schedule, with a Thursday night juggernaut as the crown jewel. Yet, since the debuts of ER and Friends and the ascendancy of Seinfeld in '94, it's been a pretty barren harvest for Littlefield and his NBC cohorts. They had a prime launching pad Thursday to bring along promising new shows; instead, they used it to prop up second-rate piffle like The Single Guy and Veronica's Closet against the pleadings of a weary public.

In recent years under Littlefield, NBC's schedule has become a cookie-cutter collection of sitcoms that cater to the same non-existent demographic, a sea of sameness where one bland show blends seamlessly into the next. At one point last year, NBC broadcast Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan, Fired Up and The Naked Truth. All centered around the exploits of single women in this crazy, modern day world. All the women held down jobs in the media -- as a cartoonist or a magazine or a tabloid reporter. And all four shows were irredeemably awful.

And you know what? The bill for all this negligence has just come due. CBS edged out NBC in all the important November Sweeps. NBC just barely beat out Fox in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic that broadcasters pander to... but only because the GE boys yanked dross like Encore! Encore! and Trinity off the schedule where they could do no harm. And that still doesn't change the fact, that NBC's share of the 18- 49-year-old audience is down 14% from last year. With numbers like that, Warren's lucky that NBC didn't announce his departure by leaving a dismembered peacock in his bed.

These are the times that try network executives' souls... or at least whatever they have in place of souls. And Warren's not the only suit to get burned. Fox programming chief Peter Roth has been shown the door, largely because of his inability to greenlight a watchable sitcom that didn't feature an animated cast. For the first time ever, basic-cable networks scored better ratings and audience shares in late night and on weekends in October than did their network counterparts. Put it all together, and it isn't hard to see that the problems of one bearded programmer don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy network world.

So what does all this nonsense mean, Big Picture-wise? Well, NBC's ratings descent will likely continue, with only the hapless ABC there to break the fall. CBS and Fox will rule the ratings roost for a time until they, too, become choked with hubris and plummet back to planet Earth. Warren Littlefield will lick his wounds, produce his TV shows and be fondly remembered as the last network programmer who could pull in a 30 share for one of his shows. As for TV, we're in the market for a new network whipping post. And we're expecting your resume by Friday, Jamie.

Of course, all this talk about the rise and fall and rise and fall of Warren Littlefield brings to mind another Martin Scorsese mob picture -- "Casino" -- where Joe Pesci plays another ill-fated hoodlum who sees his dreams of ill-gotten gains come to a violent and bloody end in the Las Vegas desert.

"It should have been so sweet," Pesci says. "We were given paradise on earth. But in the end, we fucked it all up."


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