NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, apparently immune to the complacency that usually afflicts first-place network executives, yesterday announced "the first phase" of midseason programming changes ...

NBC is bringing in two new one-hour dramas, "In the Heat of the Night" and "Aaron's Way," and giving "Bronx Zoo" another try at the brass ring. The three new hours will result in the shift of a couple of series and the retirement to "hiatus" of a couple more ...

The first phase mostly affects the comparatively weak Wednesday night schedule. Tartikoff said yesterday that the second phase, to be detailed in about 10 days, will include the return of "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and "Beverly Hills Buntz" somewhere in the NBC schedule, during the week of March 21 ...

"In the Heat of the Night," loosely based on the award-winning 1967 movie, will air in the 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot starting March 15, but will premiere with a two-hour movie on Sunday, March 6. The TV version stars Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins in the roles made famous by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier ...

"Aaron's Way" will take the 8 p.m. Wednesday time slot starting March 16, premiering with a two-hour movie the previous Wednesday. Merlin Olsen and Melinda Montgomery star in this story of an Amish couple who move to California to take care of their dead son's baby, born out of wedlock to a vineyard operator ...

"The Bronx Zoo" will rejoin the schedule at 10 p.m. Wednesdays starting March 30, but will get an earlier look-see on Thursday, March 24, at 10 p.m., preempting "L.A. Law" that night. The series, which has appeared sporadically this season, stars Ed Asner as the principal of a tough South Bronx high school ...

With the new series, "Hunter" will leave Tuesdays at 9 to return to his old Saturday-at-10 time slot starting March 12. "J.J. Starbuck," now in that spot, will Head for Hiatus ...

"A Year in the Life," now at 9 on Wednesdays, will move to 10 that same night for three weeks starting March 9 and will return to its regular time slot starting April 6 ...

Likewise, "Highway to Heaven," now seen on Wednesday at 8, will move to 9 that night for three weeks starting March 16 and then hit the Highway to Hiatus ...

"St. Elsewhere" leaves the Wednesday-at-10 slot starting March 9 but will return later in the spring ...

Tartikoff, appearing before the annual meeting of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) in Houston, also revealed that he will hold a "preliminary" talk with "Tonight" host Johnny Carson in Burbank next week about an extension of Carson's current big-buck contract with the network ...

He also said he has held an "encouraging" conversation with Bill Cosby, whose "The Cosby Show" is No. 1 in the country, about returning for another season ...

Phil Donahue interviews Judith Exner today out in Los Angeles. The "Donahue" interview will air here Wednesday on Channel 9 at 9 a.m. ...

Exner hit the headlines earlier this week with allegations, in an article written for People magazine by Kitty Kelley, that when she and President Kennedy were lovers, she carried correspondence between Kennedy and Chicago mob boss Momo Giancana and earlier had arranged a meeting in Florida between the mobster and then-candidate Kennedy ...

Exner appeared on "Donahue" in 1977 ...

Also In The News

CBS special correspondent Walter Cronkite yesterday canceled a scheduled appearance this Sunday as the moderator of a debate among Democratic presidential candidates in Houston after learning that without his knowledge an ad hoc network of some 125 stations had been set up to carry the debate around the country ...

An appearance on such a widely circulated program would have violated Cronkite's contract with CBS, which reportedly pays him $1 million a year (the former "Evening News" anchor also serves on the CBS Inc. board of directors), since the late-afternoon debate would plainly be in competition with CBS affiliates around the country carrying network sports programming ...

Channel 20 here is scheduled to air the Cronkiteless 90-minute debate at midnight Monday evening ...

Cronkite yesterday characterized the flap as a "major misunderstanding" that arose when an official of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE), which is meeting in Houston this week, asked him to moderate the debate a few weeks ago ...

"My understanding from the letter NATPE originally sent me was that at the most it would be a regional hookup of maybe two or three stations, and that would not have been a problem. There was no mention of a national effort or about it being commercially done. I thought of it as a pro bono kind of thing, and interesting to do" ...

On returning from a trip to the Bahamas Wednesday, Cronkite found a script for Sunday's broadcast in the mail. He was surprised to learn, as he "gave the script a rundown," that there were commercial breaks scheduled during the debate ...

Further inquiry revealed the extent of the syndication effort and yesterday he notified NATPE he would not attend. Cronkite said correspondence indicated the program is to be produced by Sun Broadcast Association ...

Cronkite yesterday would say only, "I'm unhappy it happened and I'd like to think it was just a misunderstanding. I heard today a couple of the candidates may not show up, either" . .

One source familiar with the situation, but a little less charitable about the proceedings, told us yesterday, "I think once they had him they sold the thing using Walter's name. People try to do it all the time in the business" ...

Late yesterday, we were unable to learn if NATPE had found a substitute moderator for the event ...

Moving Right Along NBC's "Sunday Today" (Channel 4 at 9 a.m.) will air at least 20 minutes this week of correspondent Maria Shriver's interview with Cuban President Fidel Castro, which took place over 4 1/2 hours Wednesday night at the Presidential Palace in Havana ...

Portions of the marathon chat, dealing with Castro's denial of drug deals in the Caribbean, were seen last night on "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" ...

Among the subjects Shriver discussed with Castro: Republican candidate Pat Robertson's allegations of Soviet missiles in Cuba; the Cuban boycott of the upcoming Summer Olympic Games; and the dramatic days of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro comments on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, President Kennedy and reported CIA attempts on his own life ...

Castro reportedly has had some 100 requests from U.S. media for interviews in recent months (including one from Brokaw) and apparently gave Shriver a break, in part, because of her Kennedy connection (President Kennedy was her mother Eunice's brother) ...

NBC News sources were chuckling yesterday in Miami because during the long day spent with Castro (whom they first met at 11 a.m. Wednesday and left at 2:30 a.m. Thursday), the Cuban leader received a telex from CBS' Dan Rather requesting an interview. Rather had apparently heard of the NBC coup ...

Ayeeyah! ABC's Winter Olympic coverage Wednesday once again skated circles around NBC's "Noble House" as the miniseries about Hong Kong came to a conclusion ...

Direct comparisons aren't available because President Reagan's 8 p.m. press conference threw off network schedules. But from 8:30 p.m. until 11 Wednesday night, the Olympics averaged an 18.8 national Nielsen rating and a 28 percent audience share (each rating point represents 886,000 TV homes) ...

"Noble House" averaged a 16.3/26 between 9:35 and 11:35 p.m. The CBS schedule Wednesday averaged a 14.2/21 between 8:30 and 11:35 p.m. ...

Incidentally, President Reagan's press conference Wednesday night attracted a 34.6 Nielsen rating and a 53 percent of the Washington area audience for network affiliates ...

Almost half of Mr. Reagan's viewers (15.5/24) were watching Channel 7, apparently waiting for the Winter Olympics to get going ...

On Channel 9, where the line was forming to watch "The Wizard of Oz," the president did a 13.1/20. Boding ill for the Tai-Pan, Channel 4 attracted only 6.2/9 during the president's media chat up (each rating point represents 16,116 TV homes) ...