NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield hangs on amid ratings decline

Last February, at the International Radio and Television Society Foundation luncheon (an annual rubber-chicken event where executives gas on about the state of the industry), NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield was asked what mistakes he had made in the past year. Without blinking, he said, ”I honestly can’t think of any.”

To rival network execs, it was typical NBC posturing. True enough, but at that particular moment Littlefield’s cockiness was at least supported by the Peacock’s solid No. 1 position, plus few programming missteps to speak of in many a season.

Ask Littlefield that question today, and you’d likely get a humbler response. For one thing, NBC is coming off its poorest November sweeps since 1994. Not only was CBS watched by more prime-time viewers than NBC (which lost 10 percent of viewers compared with a year ago), but the net’s pull with Madison Avenue’s dream 18-to-49-year-old demo had slipped 4 percent. You could almost hear Littlefield’s belittlers sharpening their blades.

Littlefield is no stranger to media lynchings, of course. Before quitting NBC for CBS, David Letterman took regular, gleeful potshots at his then boss. Thanks to those on-air gibes, the carrot-topped executive came to symbolize everything the creative side of the industry hated about geeky, bottom-line-loving suits.

The seemingly unflappable Littlefield took it with characteristic aplomb—and got the last laugh. In the heated 1992 battle for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show chair, he had favored Jay Leno over Letterman—an unpopular decision then, but Jay now regularly beats Dave in the ratings. A year after the late-night fracas, Littlefield could also crow about NBC’s rebound from third place to second, then ultimately first, where it continues to reside.

With that grip slipping, however, insiders are wondering whether anyone at NBC will be laughing come season’s end.

For Warren Littlefield, 1997 has all the makings of — in the words of another beleaguered leader — an annus horribilis. The cruelest blow appeared in a published conversation with the late Brandon Tartikoff, printed posthumously in November’s Esquire. The legendary TV exec was asked to explain the longevity of his former protege’s career: ”You have to understand. [Warren Littlefield is] a cockroach…. He’s going to survive nuclear war.” According to one longtime friend of Tartikoff’s, this was classic Brandon flippancy, probably intended as an off- the-record quip and hardly a reflection of his true feelings. Nevertheless, Littlefield continues to be devastated, although, according to friends, he’s ”too classy” to respond.

Though it’s unfair to compare Littlefield with Tartikoff—a gregarious visionary whose passion for television was nearly tangible—many do. Littlefield, the chorus goes, is unemotional, remote, an empty suit. One veteran TV exec equates him with Woody Allen’s Zelig: a man who witnesses historic events, who is continually surrounded by great men, yet who has no impact in his own right. ”He’s very chameleonlike,” says one long-standing colleague. ”I don’t know if anybody knows him that well.”