The place is crawling with TV people, a thousand of them. It's like a rocket-load dropped down from Mars because, frankly, they're strange. They look bland enough -- mostly white middle-aged guys -- but they have ways of their own, a language of their own. They have sharp clothes, mostly double-breasted jackets, and trained voices. And they can -- like magic! -- make an upcoming TV special from Stephen Hawking's brainy book, "A Brief History of Time," and boldly announce that they've done it with: "a Spielberg touch."

Brandon Tartikoff stands on the National Theatre stage. He's the legendary boy-genius president of NBC Entertainment. He is also a Bugs Bunny-toothed, dark-haired grown-up. He's standing next to a TV screen as big as the sky.

The theater is stuffed with NBC affiliate station managers from around the country. Tartikoff is presenting the "fall lineup." This takes many hours.

"There's been a lot of talk," says Tartikoff, "about the erosion of our aging shows. What goes unnoticed here is that the ABC comedies on Tuesday night are eroding faster."

Erosion. Audience flow through. A seven-night strategy. He's in front of a grid projected on the screen, like a huge TV Guide. He sounds like Gen. Patton explaining the stock market, or the racetrack. Shows are "aggressively launched," some are "re-formatted" or "vulnerable to assault." It's life and death. It's handicapping, and piles of research to back up instincts.

Clips of the new shows are played. Promotions -- TV ads for TV shows -- are played. The affiliates are mesmerized before the onslaught of slogans, jargon, images, jokes, canned excitement. Sometimes they laugh at the same time a laugh track comes on. Sometimes they don't.

NBC is still the No. 1 network in entertainment, Tartikoff doesn't have to remind anybody, but ABC is closing in. Tuesday nights are a problem.

"Our strategy is simply to take our lawyer show at 8," Tartikoff says, "and have our cop show at 9.

"And we've come up with a great cop-and-lawyer show for 10."

Peacocks are all over -- that jubilant, super-hopeful, six-color NBC logo. It's the three-day NBC Affiliates Convention at the J.W. Marriott downtown that started Monday. The network heads, marketing experts and stars have come to "present" their fall lineup to affiliates from 208 stations. There's an NBC Store downstairs selling David Letterman T-shirts and NBC Sports baby clothes. There's the NBC Cafe to hit.

And there's the "Today" show disaster to talk about. The affiliates give Jane Pauley a standing ovation when she's introduced.

"It's a battle and a horse race," says Barry Schulman, programming manager for WBZ in Boston, one of NBC most important affiliates. He's lingering outside the hotel. He's seen the promos. He's watched the pilots. He's got gambler's eyes -- excited.

Challenges! "This is the first time the 'Today' show has not been ascending, but collapsing," Schulman says of the ratings plummet since Deborah Norville and Bryant Gumbel became co-anchors, without Pauley. "It's shocking. And the rebuilding is going to be slow. Joe Garagiola's a great addition," he adds. "And Deborah got a bum rap at the starting gate."

Warren Littlefield, the executive VP for NBC's prime-time programs, walks up to Schulman. They've both got double-breasted suits. Littlefield's got red hair and a beard, like that character on ABC's dreaded hit "thirtysomething." Schulman's saying how much he loves the looks of NBC's new fall show "The Franelli Boys."

"But I have to ask you," he says to Littlefield, "are any of those actors really Italian?"

"One is," says Littlefield.

"My wife," groans Schulman, "still likes 'Murder, She Wrote.' " He is referring to the dreaded hit on CBS.

"This is how it works," explains Nance Guillmartin, from Westinghouse Broadcasting in New York. She's helping out an alien in TV Land. "They listen to their wives and children -- anybody who's not a supposed expert."

New Realities The peacocks have come here -- rather than Maui or Scottsdale -- because they've got some business in Washington. They want to get some Federal Communications Commission regulations changed, ones that keep a network from producing more than five of its 21 weekly hours of prime-time programming, and that keep a network from syndicating its own programs domestically.

This issue was reopened recently by the Fox Broadcasting Co. -- which asked for a waiver from these restrictions. And NBC, ABC and CBS have all found something, finally, to agree upon. They don't want Fox to get some unfair advantage. And these restrictions, obviously, cost them -- perhaps as much as $4 billion annually in syndication revenues, according to some.

"We are amateur lobbyists, not professionals," says Cyril Vetter, chairman of the affiliates' government relations committee. "But there are some new realities in the television business, and we want people to be aware of them."

New realities like less money. New realities like slipping ratings overall for the networks. New realities like The Cable Monster, video rentals and the Fox stations.

The peacocks are also grousing about "Cable Retransmission Exemption." This refers to the fact that cable stations are exempt from paying a fee for running network broadcast signals that can be pulled from, well, thin air.

So the NBC affiliates have been meeting with House Speaker Tom Foley, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Senate Republican leader Robert Dole and other Hill leaders.

"Our increased involvement in the process," says Vetter, "was welcomed."

"I think in about two years from now, we'll go back to Hawaii," NBC President Pier Mapes said in his "State of the Network Address." "This is fun here in Washington, but I think the beach is better."

Sunday Bloody Sunday Hours pass. The grown-up boy-genius Tartikoff tirelessly continues his pitch on the dark stage. There are promos. And promos of promos. Images -- thousands of them -- keep filling the huge screen. Modulated broadcastery voices accompany them, and come fast, like tidal waves of enthusiasm and hope and thrill, nonstop.

There are more slogans than in a new socialist country, or at a Republican convention:

NBC the Place to Be.

Saturday Morning: NBC Is the Fun Place to Be.

If It's Late, and It's Funny, Then You Know, It's NBC.

Tartikoff calls his new lineup for Saturday Night: "Night of a Thousand Laughs." He refers to Sunday as "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

"We've tried to analyze the night and attack it," he says of Sunday. "There really are two different nights on this night. There's the 7 to 9 block. And there's the 11 block where all three of the major networks put movies."

His solution to the two-night night, and the dreaded CBS hit "60 Minutes," is a new show called "Signs of Life."

The clips start. Wistful "Field of Dreams"-type music plays. It sounds like wind blowing in your ears -- empty, but strangely soulful. Dreamy. New age. New.

The show's about a man with colon cancer.

A deep, taped voice says: Through the years there have been medical shows focusing on doctors -- the lives they lead and save. "Signs of Life" is unusual in form and content, which presents as its heroes not the doctors, but the patients, whose triumphs of spirit when faced with life and death situations make for the most compelling viewing ...

"We are not going to be doing life-threatening illnesses every week," says Tartikoff. "We have the whole spectrum of medicine and health care to deal with for the very young, young adults, and those of middle age. ...

"It's probably the best work we've seen at NBC since the 'L.A. Law' pilot," he says. "It's a very different show. It's a very risky show. But I think ultimately, we can all hold our heads up high to our communities and to the public -- at least we are doing something that can have a profound impact on American life.

"We also believe," he says, "that the American public knows how to switch channels on the half-hour at 8:30, so they certainly know how to turn the channel at 8."

He's now addressing the Sunday Bloody Sunday night competition.

"So the '60 Minutes' audience," he says, "is primed for this."

Selling the News "Winning lead-ins." This is what Tartikoff says he's got. A "lead-in" is a little promo of things to come, which will, it is hoped, keep people stuck like moths to the TV screen. Lead-ins to the "NBC Nightly News" are important, since NBC is rated last.

A man named John Miller, executive VP for marketing, addresses those gathered in the dark. Then a man named Tim Miller comes on, who does advertising and promotion. Neither of them -- it should be mentioned -- makes for particularly great entertainment.

They offer two hours of marketing information: jingles, promo-bits, lead-ins, summer spots, logos, slogans.

Wherever news breaks. Whatever it takes.

This is the familiar "Nightly News" slogan. "Research says that the line is a solid one," says Tim Miller. The slogan is played with the "Nightly News" music. It's a marching beat with snare drums that sound like bullets going off, and with horns. The screen fills with compelling historic images to keep viewers fascinated, to make them feel something.

The Millers discuss the "Today" show. "Our top commitment in the coming months," says one of them, "is to do whatever it takes to get 'Today' back where it belongs. Back to Number 1."

The other says: "It's a new today on 'Today.' "

New promos -- and music -- for the morning news program are played. It's young, sassy, MTV stuff. There's a quick spot with Joe Garagiola. There's a rough docu-interview-advertisement with Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville, in which they coo about each other -- but in a newsy, frank manner -- like newlyweds.

"It's all a big, synergistic, creative amalgam," says Tartikoff on the sidewalk later. "If one part of the whole is not working, then it pulls down the rest of us. If the 'Tonight' show isn't doing well, for example, then people don't go to bed with their TV left on Channel 4, and it's not a good lead-in the next morning to the 'Today' show."

The Specials Another bearded man, Tony Masucci, turns up in the dark. He's the senior VP of miniseries and motion pictures for television. He mentions "erosion problems" on Sunday and Monday nights. He's got some strategies.

He's got "The Tai Babilonia Story," a poignant piece on the skater's drug history. There's a new "Perry Mason" movie, and "The Odd Couple Reunion" with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.

There's a movie: "Honey, Let's Kill the Neighbors."

And: "The Dallas Cop Killers."

There are perennials -- holiday parades, a Bob Hope special, a Johnny Carson special, a David Letterman special. And there's Everett Koop -- that wacky former surgeon general! -- in a special called: "Everett Koop, MD."

"We wish it was September already," Tartikoff concludes. "Then America would know what we know now: that we're back. We're back on our game."