The man in the clerical garb may have only been an actor, and the stack of books he was holding may not have really been Bibles, but the message was clear - and real.

"I, Brandon Tartikoff, do solemnly swear," swore the NBC Entertainment president, his right arm raised to the square and his left hand resting on the stack of "Bibles," "that I will not buy any more specials from Geraldo Rivera . . ."OK, maybe it was only another one of Tartikoff's traditional press tour gags, as the programming executive opened his semi-annual press conference with visiting television critics at the Registry Hotel Saturday. But it didn't take him long to make it clear that his resolve was more than just tongue in cheek.

"I would not say that it was our finest hour," Tartikoff said during the press conference, referring to last autumn's sensationalistic Rivera special on Satanism, which brought big ratings and heavy critical condemnation to NBC.

"I don't think you'll be seeing any more programs in that vein from NBC with Geraldo or anybody else," Tartikoff continued. "I don't think he would want to go back through that experience with NBC, and I just think . . . that we're going to go on to other things."

Rivera's dissatisfaction in the affair would probably stem from NBC's insistence on certain editorial changes in the two-hour special, which included segments on sexual rituals and animal and human sacrifice. We didn't see the show in Utah because NBC affiliate KUTV chose (wisely, I think) to pre-empt it for a debate on the tax initiatives. But my colleagues here are still talking about a report on devil worshippers who claim to kidnap babies and then skin them alive as part of their ceremonies.

In other words, Rivera business as usual. Or unusual, as is more often the case.

"I would say on behalf of Geraldo Rivera that he delivered everything he said he would deliver," Tartikoff said. "We didn't think that he would uncover as much as he uncovered, or that it would be as graphic as it turned out to be."

Curiously, Tartikoff's boss, NBC president and chief executive officer Robert C. Wright, disagrees. "We do not regret airing it," Wright told critics earlier Saturday. "All of the issues that Geraldo dealt with apparently are much better known to high school students, high school teachers and people involved at PTAs at the high school level than perhaps you and I would like to believe. We received a surprising amount of after-the-fact support for this very tough show."

But the support wasn't enough to convince Tartikoff to try Geraldo again. "It was a one-time-only experiment," he said.

And evidently, like Frankenstein's monster, NBC's Great Geraldo Experiment was a failure despite its success.

- SNARLING AT SUCCESS was sort of a theme for Tartikoff on Saturday. His network dominates prime time like Godzilla dominated Tokyo, and yet Tartikoff was talking like someone had just kicked his trike into the ditch.

"I think that most of the major bumps in the road are behind us," said the No. 1 man at the No. 1 network. "I'm looking forward both at midseason, this spring, through the summer and into next fall as a return to the kind of television the viewers expected and the kind of NBC that you (critics) have expected of us."

Hold it. We are talking about NBC, aren't we? America's Network on Thursday nights and the home of 10 of the season's top 15 programs? "We are happy with our successes," Tartikoff said, "but we are disappointed a little bit in terms of what we've been able to put on."

Translation: The numbers are up, but the quality is down. But then, you didn't need the wunderkind of television programming to tell you that, did you? The villain, according to Tartikoff, is last year's writer's strike, which threw planning and development off for both continuing series and new series this season.

"We had a lot of programming that we had targeted for the fall," the NBC executive said. "We tried to the best of our ability to get most of it on. Sometimes, when certain series or movies were not available, we rushed forward on other projects that could take their place. Some of them were good; some of them were not so good."

No kidding.

One of the big problems, in Tartikoff's view, was the fact that series didn't have the luxury of saving less successful episodes for later in the season. As soon as an episode was finished it was on the air. No substitutes. And movies and specials had to run quickly, with precious little time for post-production polishing and editing.

Those problems continue to afflict television today, and likely will through the rest of the winter, spring and summer. It will probably take clear until next fall to right the tipsy network programming wagon.

In the meantime, the networks will probably continue to lose viewers to cable and independent television stations at unprecedented rates.

"It's a very confusing situation," said Wright in analyzing the impact of cable and independents on The Big Three. "There are a lot of elements to consider."

But one thing must be considered quickly. The film and television directors' union contract is up for negotiation this spring. If we're going to avoid another year of strike-plagued programming - and, not coincidentally, even more damage to networks as we know them - the strike bullet is going to have to be dodged.

Now.