MARINA DEL REY, CALIF. -- With the Jan. 15 deadline in the Persian Gulf a week away, NBC News president Michael Gartner yesterday spelled out in the broadest terms how he expects the crisis to impact on his organization ...

He estimated that in the long lull since the original buildup in the gulf, NBC has reduced spending to about $500,000 a week extra for crisis coverage. But starting this past weekend, with the deadline nearing, the weekly estimate has risen to at least $1 million again.

Between costs of four new NBC News projects and the gulf expenditures, Gartner said the division is spending at the rate of $300 million annually "plus or minus $30 million" ...

At a press conference here yesterday, Gartner would not specify just how many people have been deployed by NBC for the story. Nor would he predict just how well the networks would be able to cover an outbreak of hostilities.

Asked about reports that the Pentagon would censor graphic pictures from combat, should war occur, Gartner called such a rule "totally unreasonable."

"I don't think you can hide the horror of war from the Americans whose children and aunts and uncles are over there fighting it, who are paying for this war ...

"The fact is ... war is not like primetime television, where people are dying peacefully or whatever. It's horrible. And you have a duty in news to tell people what's going on. And if something is horrible, you tell them it's horrible, you show them it's horrible, and if there's an event that's wonderful, you show them how wonderful it is ...

"Any time {someone} tries to somehow crimp that, it's very, very bad for the viewer. It's very bad for the country, it's very bad for democracy" ...

He conceded that news managers would exercise their own censorship of "horrible" footage. "I have no problem with {'Today' show executive producer} Tom Capra making that decision. I just don't want {Defense Secretary} Dick Cheney to make that decision" ...

Of probable censorship problems should the war break out, Gartner said:

"Well, you just try and go around the system, the same thing you do when the local police department says 'I'm not going to give you the names of crime victims.' You find other ways to do it; you find other ways to get the footage out; you find other ways to get the story out. News people are a pretty enterprising, daring lot. And they will cover this war if there is a war. The print people will. The television people will.

"And Americans want to know. ... And if Americans aren't told, they'll ... raise hell about it. They want to know and they have a right to know" ...

In other news, Gartner said he had talked to "Today" cohost Deborah Norville on Friday. She told him she expects her baby in early March and she expects to be back on the program in time for the May ratings sweeps ...

"Therefore," said Gartner, "I expect her to be back ... I expect it and I welcome it" ...

He confirmed that "Today" national correspondent Katie Couric would fill in for Norville during the latter's maternity leave, but Gartner wouldn't bite on the "rumors" that Couric is Norville's eventual replacement.

Earlier he confessed, "I do worry about the 'Today' show," but rallied to claim that it was "the news show of choice in the morning" ...

"Bryant Gumbel is the best news person on in the morning, one of the two or three best interviewers in all of television" (translation: Bryant is up for contract renewal later this year) ...

ABC's "Good Morning America," meanwhile, just won for the 52nd straight week in the morning race and issued figures showing that in the past calendar year -- coincidental with the departure of Jane Pauley from the "Today" show -- the NBC morning show has lost 19 percent in ratings and 20 percent in audience share, while GMA is up 10 and 16 percent, respectively, and "CBS This Morning" is up 4 and 9 percent.

Gartner also praised "Today's" Joe Garagiola, as a "very smart guy who brings a warmth and a gentility and a sense of comradeship to the show. He asks the kind of questions of people that the average viewer would like to ask. He's a very good questioner" (translation: it would cost too much to buy out Garagiola's ironclad multi-million-dollar contract) ...

And finally, NBC Entertainment Group chairman Brandon Tartikoff remains in satisfactory condition at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, Nev., a network executive said yesterday.

Tartikoff, who suffered a broken pelvis and other fractures in a Jeep accident near his Lake Tahoe vacation home last week, has been taken off some medication. "He is more awake now," said Betty Hudson, "but there's of course more pain."

The condition of his 8-year-old daughter, Calla, who suffered a head injury in the same accident, remains serious. "She had a very good night," Hudson reported. "The doctors must still wait and see, but subject to the constraints of a very serious head injury, every day that passes is more good news."