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NBC MAKING THE BEST OF A MISTAKE

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To hear the folks at NBC talk about the late-night situation, you'd think that Jay Leno is winning.

He's not, of course. But he is doing better than he was a year ago at this time, so the fact that he's trailing CBS' David Letterman is a bit less painful than it might otherwise be.And Leno is feeling less pain than ever, what with a "multi-year" contract extension and a hefty raise from NBC.

(Neither Leno nor NBC Entertainment President Warren Lit-tle-field would divulge any details of the new pact to television critics gathered here for the semi-annual press tour.)

And, as always, Leno was upbeat and self-deprecating about his situation.

"Well, it's good to see you again," he told the critics. "Remember the last time we all got together, I was ready to be fired, I think."

There's no danger of that now. NBC made its decision to stick with Leno, forcing Letterman to go to CBS, and there's no going back for the Peacock now.

Although Letterman is a clear winner by any and all measurements - his audience is bigger, his demographics are better and his show brings in more advertising dollars - Leno is obviously not on the verge of cancellation. The fact is, NBC couldn't do better with anybody else.

And, again, while Letterman's audience is bigger than Leno's, Leno's is bigger than it was a few months ago, perhaps lending credence to the host's own theory about the recent developments.

"I think it's safe to say the competition has made all the shows better," Leno said. "I know it's certainly made us better. I mean, I think we're looser, the monologues are longer, there's more jokes."

He called the late-night ratings competition a "great fight."

"And right now, are we getting beaten? Sure," Leno said. "But are we holding our own? Yeah. I mean, both shows are making a tremendous amount of money for both networks.

"Now the game is, we're going to try to make a little more money for NBC than they're making for CBS."

Still, it's almost surreal to listen to Littlefield talk about how Leno is the greatest thing since Johnny Carson. After all, Littlefield's job is to make NBC as much money as possible, and his choice of Leno over Letterman for "The Tonight Show" is costing his network millions in lost revenue.

"Jay has done a remarkable job," Littlefield said. "Ratings for `The Tonight Show' are as strong as they've ever been."

Actually, they're as strong as they've ever been with Leno as host, but considerably lower than under Johnny Carson's glory years in the '60s and '70s.

On the other hand, it's not that surprising to hear anyone who has made such a public blunder try to defend it.

NBC GETS "WONDERFUL": Christmas 1994 will be the first in memory that won't feature a flood of "It's a Wonderful Life" all over the tube.

NBC has acquired exclusive television rights to the 1946 classic.

It's a long story how. Briefly, Republic Pictures rather stupidly let its copyright on the movie lapse years ago, leading to the "Wonderful" proliferation. But it has recently regained copyright control of the score, thus effectively regaining control of the film.

And NBC bought the rights from Republic.

Thankfully, NBC will be airing the original director's cut, black-and-white version, which Lit-tle-field said is "the way Frank Capra intended this picture to be seen."

(It is hard to believe, however, that Capra intended it to be seen with commercial interruptions.)

If nothing else, this should make the annual Deseret News Christmas specials list . . . oh . . . about a third shorter.

CANCELED: Until Littlefield's appearance before the critics, NBC had remained silent about the fate of the high-quality but low-rated "Against the Grain."

Unfortunately, as long suspected, there's no longer any hope for the show. NBC has canceled it.

"Unfortunately, we couldn't find an acceptable level of audience," Littlefield said.

In other words, the ratings were bad and NBC isn't going to move the series to a more favorable time slot.

In a bit more of a surprise, Littlefield also announced that Larry Hagman's "Staying Afloat" project has been axed after disappointing ratings for its premiere.

You may recall that, just a few months ago, NBC announced plans that "Afloat" would be a weekly series by now. But that's TV biz.

NEW SERIES: NBC also announced a number of new shows starring a bunch of familiar stars:

- Melissa Gilbert, who starred in NBC's "Little House On the Prairie," will be joined by Cicely Tyson in a new drama that's slated for the coming fall.

Gilbert will star as the youngest member of a prominent Southern legal family who spurns the family firm to work for Tyson's maverick legal outfit.

- Patty Duke has a commitment from NBC for a two-hour pilot and six one-hour episodes for her untitled new drama, also slated for the fall.

Duke will play a woman with two young children who, after overcoming drug problems and a bad marriage, "finds her calling" as the minister of a church in Spokane, Wash.

"I suppose the last place I thought I would be the first week of 1994 is standing on this stage listening to you introduce me and what I'm going to be doing for the next several years, I hope," Duke said. "I didn't want to do a television series. I have a wonderful life in Idaho."

So she won't have to leave Idaho. The series will be shot in Spokane, which is a relatively short drive from her home.

- Ralph Macchio, who starred in all those "Karate Kid" movies (and who was once a regular on "Eight Is Enough"), will star in a sitcom as a young husband and father raising a family in the Midwest.

Assuming it makes it out of development, it's also a possibility as a fall series.

- Shawn and Marlon Wayans, the youngest brothers of Keenen and Damon Wayans, will star as - surprise! - brothers who live together as they try to make it on their own.

NEW MOVIES: And here are a few of the teleflicks headed our way from NBC:

- Farrah Fawcett will star in "The Substitute," which is described as a "Western drama."

- Joanna Kerns ("Growing Pains") will star in "Concealed Weapon," as a teacher whose purchase of a handgun for protection at school leads to a tragedy.

- Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier") will play a down-on-his-luck D.A. who befriends an autistic murder witness in "The Innocent."

- And John Stamos ("Full House") will star as half of a young couple whose plans to marry are interrupted by the revelation that they're closely related.

(Hey, I don't make this stuff up - I only report it.)

Oh, and the first of several TV movies featuring Bill Cosby as detective "Guy Hawkes" is scheduled to air Monday, Jan. 31 - the day after the Super Bowl. It's scheduled to become a weekly series in the fall.

(Gee, you don't suppose Cosby might want to talk to Larry Hagman about that, do you?)