Kevin O'Brien, who had a major role in bringing Channel 5 in Washington to its current status as one of the top independent TV stations in the country, has resigned as vice president and general manager of WNYW in New York . . .

He will be replaced by Robert Kunath, currently president of Group W TV sales . . .

O'Brien moved from WTTG to then WNEW last year when both stations were still owned by Metromedia. At the time he exchanged the top job at the station with Bob O'Connor, who replaced O'Brien at Five in Washington . . .

In March, Fox Broadcasting Co., the Rupert Murdoch-owned broadcast group, took over the six Metromedia stations, at which time WNEW became WNYW in New York . . .

The reality of working with a new top management team with which he was unacquainted apparently was a key factor in O'Brien's decision to leave an organization he had been with in several major capacities for more than 18 years . . .

"It was a mutual thing," O'Brien said yesterday. "I've decided to try my expertise in a different direction" . . .

He said he had already received several offers, which he declined to discuss, adding, "I'm going to examine all my options" . . .

When O'Brien -- who had previously worked at the station in the late 1960s -- arrived at WTTG in 1983 the station, while making money, was considered to be languishing . . .

One of his first moves was to bring back Maury Povich, to once again anchor the noontime "Panorama" and the "10 O'Clock News" programs, which had previously done well for years with Povich at the helm before he left in the 1970s to try his luck in several other major markets . . .

The "10 O'Clock News" in particular thrived with Povich's return, and by the time O'Brien staged a lavish 40th anniversary celebration for WTTG last year, the news show had won a local Emmy for best news program and ratings for the show had made it No. 1 among all independent stations around the country. Morale had been restored at the station and O'Brien was rewarded with the promotion to WNEW in New York.

Also in the News

The 33-member board of trustees of WNET (Channel 13) in New York -- considered the flagship station of the Public Broadcasting Service -- meets today amid strong rumors of staff cutbacks, a major reorganization and a severe reduction in future national programming projects . . .

Sources indicate as many as 65 positions may be eliminated from the current staff of about 500 and that another 65 could be gone by midautumn . . .

John Jay Iselin, president of WNET, late yesterday refused to confirm the personnel cuts, although he said a 15 percent "core reduction" in expenses is expected all across the board at the station . . .

He said the board will be asked to approve a five-year "master plan" that has been under study for some 18 months. It would create a "super station" whose target audience will be the metropolitan New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area WNET serves . . .

"The implication is," he said, "that we're pulling away from the national system." But, he added, the "narrowcasting" in programming being planned in the visual and performing arts as well as for young audiences, though targeted for WNET viewers, would be available to PBS . . .

"We've been subsidizing a national schedule at the rate of about $10 million a year," said Iselin. "And as a result, much of our own effort was underfunded. Now we propose to take that $10 million and expend it on behalf of our viewers in the New York metropolitan area" . . .

He said a planned reorganization would "consolidate and integrate the station's operations. We can expect some reductions in personnel" . . .

The implications for the vitality of PBS, as far as the presence of major new U.S. TV productions on the air in the next few years, are considered serious by member stations . . .

The entire public broadcasting system is feeling the economic pinch. Corporation underwriting has been cut back, public fund-raising support has leveled off, and congressional aid, which accounts for about a third of public television's budget, grows at a snail's pace.

Other sources said yesterday that WNET operated on a budget of about $100 million in 1984-85 and is reportedly budgeted at about $86 million this year . . .

By comparison Channel 26 in Washington operated on a $28 million budget last year but is contemplating a reduction of about $2 million this coming year, which starts July 1. The staff of about 210 at WETA, however, is considered stable and the station operates in the black . . .

Likewise, another major PBS station, WGBH in Boston, operates with only about 250 employes . . .

After surviving a reported $6 million revenue shortfall in 1982-83, WNET according to our sources has nevertheless been slow in reducing expenses . . .

For example, some 20 employes until recently have been working on the national underwriting staff, but with corporation funding dried up in the current economy, they have been producing almost nothing in revenue . . .

An education unit of about 10 people was recently dismantled at the station, according to sources . . .

More importantly to the PBS network, WNET is expected to cut down on research and development for new national programming projects, although two upcoming series, "The Mind" and "American Masters," are considered safe . . .

Important sustaining series like "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Nature" may be near the end of the road due to sharp cutbacks by their corporate sponsors expected at the end of the upcoming season, a factor considered important in WNET's decision to change direction today . . .

Over the years WNET has been the source of some of PBS' best series, including "The Adams Chronicles," "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews" and the aforementioned "The Brain" . . .

*Its coproduction with WETA of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" will not be affected by the changes to be discussed today, according to our sources . . .

Moving Right Along

"CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" suffered through another week at the hands of the NBA Championships and barely escaped third place in last week's network news race. It turns out that Nielsen revised its figures, so last week's news that CBS had fallen to second place for the first time in 212 weeks was not quite true. Revised figures show that it tied with "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" . . .

So this week turns out to be the historic week in which CBS actually finished second. "NBC Nightly News" had a 10.4 Nielsen rating and a 22 percent audience share, compared with a 10.1/22 for "CBS Evening News," which finished just barely ahead of "ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" at 10.0/21 . . .

Celtics-Rockets primetime games on CBS on Tuesday and Thursday nights cost "Evening News" viewers once again, as significant parts of its West Coast audiences saw the game, which pre-empted Rather, instead (the Thursday night West Coast audience was 750,000 TV homes shy of a regular week's average) . . .

John M. Eger, senior vice president of CBS Worldwide Enterprises, will be leaving the network to form a consulting firm specializing in international communications strategy, investment and business affairs . . .

Before joining CBS in 1981, he had been adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and director of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy.

NBC racked up another win last week in the primetime race, scoring a 13.0 Nielsen rating and a 24 percent audience share, compared with a 12.6/23 for CBS and an 11.1/20 for ABC . . .

The biggest news of the week was that TV's biggest hit, "The Cosby Show," slipped to second place behind its follow-up Thursday night show, "Family Ties." NBC was quick to explain that the occurrence was a result of summer viewing behavior when people stay out later to enjoy the weather . . .

NBC's canceled "All Is Forgiven" continued its strong ratings performance with a 17.5/29, although it was the only series in the top 10 that was not a rerun . . .

The list of shows dangling outside the week's top 20 included ABC's "David Hartman . . . There's Gotta Be a Better Way" tied for 36th place with an 11.4/21, the "NBC White Paper: Divorce Is Changing America" tied for 47th with a 9.8/17, ABC's comedy pilot "Moscow Bureau" in 56th (8.3/15) and CBS' "West 57th" in 59th place with a 7.0/13.