NBC officials called renewing "Friends" for a ninth season their top priority on Wednesday, even as the network prepares to try parlaying the vast audience anticipated for its Winter Olympics coverage into a launching pad for new hits.
Addressing TV critics and reporters in Pasadena, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker also announced an array of nostalgic specials planned for the May rating sweeps--when NBC was already scheduled to commemorate its 75th anniversary with a splashy prime-time production--inspired in part, he acknowledged, by CBS' surprise success with a "Carol Burnett Show" special in November.
Having already canceled the new comedies "Emeril" and "Inside Schwartz," NBC will launch three new half-hour series coming out of the Olympics in February, including a sitcom starring "Seinfeld's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, "Watching Ellie." That project will run Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m., however, while the more coveted post-"Friends" time slot goes to "Leap of Faith," an ensemble comedy. The network is also planning a prime-time variety show, "New York Live," hosted by "Saturday Night Live's" Colin Quinn.
As for "Friends," NBC indicated the issue is less about money (the six principal cast members currently earn roughly $20 million a year) than whether the actors wish to continue with the series, which has enjoyed a ratings revival this year. Most assume the show will be back, but last year's negotiations went down to the wire on NBC setting its prime-time schedule in May, a scenario executives would like to avoid. Zucker said NBC is "anxiously awaiting an answer" regarding the show's future.
The May sweeps, meanwhile, will have an '80s flavor, with NBC planning a "Cosby Show" reunion special a decade after its finale, an "L.A. Law" reunion movie and a Bob Hope retrospective.
NBC also confirmed second-season renewals for three of its new programs: the comedy "Scrubs" and the dramas "Crossing Jordan" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
NBC did find itself on the defensive regarding plans to run a Playboy playmate edition of the stunt series "Fear Factor" opposite the Super Bowl halftime show on Fox, the decision to accept advertising for liquor after a self-imposed ban and a snafu earlier this week over Carson Daly's new late-night show, which NBC yanked at the last minute because the host's contract had yet to be finalized.
"We made a mistake," NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa said regarding Daly, whose show premiered a day late to reasonably good ratings in the slot after "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
As for criticism of "Fear Factor," Zucker said NBC was simply "having fun," adding, "If you don't want to watch it, there'll be a marching band or U2 at halftime [on Fox]."