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NBC wrestles with locals over daytime

The plot line may not have enough intrigue or sex appeal to make it as a soap opera, but NBC's daytime programing is certainly a story of a relationship under stress.

The relationship in question is between NBC and its stations, and the stress for the network has been so great that Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, said, "As far as daytime goes, we're not really a network anymore."

The change in NBC's daytime status is symptomatic of the widespread changes that have affected the television business as a whole, Littlefield said.

Though the erosion of network control over prime time has received most of the attention, other parts of the television industry have been equally or even more affected, with each network having to concede that new approaches are needed.

"The time for network arrogance is over," he said. "Every network has its own problem area. CBS's position with its late-night programing is similar to ours in daytime, and ABC isn't a network at all after Nightline. Our problem is daytime."

Littlefield said most NBC stations ran the network's daytime programs either out of sequence from the way they are scheduled or not at all. "Only 14 percent of the stations carry the shows live as we feed them," he said.

To deal with its daytime problems, NBC is seeking a partnership with its affiliated stations to create new daytime programs. John Rohrbeck, whose main job is president of the network stations division, has been put in charge of daytime as well in order to involve the stations more closely in daytime programing.

In the latest example of NBC's daytime problems, the network announced last week that it was canceling Santa Barbara, one of only three soap operas still on NBC.

The show had struggled in the ratings for its entire run and had little prospect of improving because so many NBC stations pre-empted it.

"We would have liked to keep it going," Littlefield said, "but the stations were telling us to wake up. They said, "If you don't abandon the show, we will.' "

Littlefield said NBC was projecting a $20-million loss on Santa Barbara this year.

The hour-long soap opera will be replaced with other network programing in January, but in the same announcement NBC said it was also dropping another half-hour daytime show, Doctor Dean, a health advice show.

That half-hour will be relinquished to the stations. NBC has now reduced its presence on weekdays to four hours. Until 1991, NBC had 5{ hours of programing. CBS still has 5{ hours, while ABC has also cut back in recent years to 4{.

Even without its weakest hours, NBC runs a very distant third in the overall daytime ratings to CBS and ABC. This is a costly position for NBC to be in. Advertising support for daytime network programs remains strong, totaling about $1.1-billion in revenue this year.

In the short term, NBC plans to fill the hour-long hole left when Santa Barbara disappears with the other staple of network daytime programing, game shows.

In the long term, Littlefield said, the network wants to give the stations what they most want: a talk show that will effectively lead into the syndicated talk shows _ like Oprah and Donahue _ that mostly fill the afternoon hours before local newscasts. "Talk with an edge is what's working out there," he said.