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ON TV BRIAN LOWRY

The sharks circle as NBC bleeds

July 23, 2003|BRIAN LOWRY

Television executives lack a dorsal fin, but in most other ways they're a lot like sharks -- possessing a knack for smelling blood and preying upon perceived weakness, which explains the recent parade of Gucci loafers circling NBC.

Seemingly the network with all the right numbers -- from a record $3-billion prime-time advertising haul for the coming season to 77 Emmy nominations, behind only HBO -- NBC is walking around with a fat target on its peacock logo. In fact, with this year's new network programs generating modest enthusiasm at best, the not-so-subtle sniping at NBC might be the best TV show in town.

Critics and competitors are quick to cite NBC's daunting set of challenges. A little show called "Friends," which transformed half a dozen twentysomethings into super-rich thirtysomethings, is ending next spring, with even a discussed spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc, who plays Joey, hardly a lock to fill those oversized shoes. "Frasier" is wounded, based on last year's ratings decline, and "ER" faces its toughest competition in years, with the NBC sitcoms that precede it having been downgraded to "maybe-see TV" and CBS' "Without a Trace" (also known as "CSI"-Ya Real Soon) being sampled by millions of new viewers this summer.

"The West Wing" rapidly lost ratings altitude and then series creator Aaron Sorkin took flight, opening the door for new creative avenues but still leaving questions. After all, how many writers know how to structure dialogue for people who can walk and talk? NBC also faces a tough negotiation to renew its three-legged "Law & Order" beast with Universal Television, whose French parent company, if negotiations drag on much longer, might be the first to try to sell a movie studio on EBay.

All that said, NBC is hardly the only network with headaches -- from ABC's difficulty launching dramas to CBS' ailing Sunday movie franchise -- which makes you wonder why everyone seems to be picking on it, and NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker in particular. Industry wags are muttering about a bill coming due for NBC's past development failures, a speeding train that can't be sidestepped. In recent meetings with visiting TV critics (who get their shot at NBC Thursday), Fox executives jabbed at NBC's vulnerability, and CBS Television Chairman Leslie Moonves noted that his network wasn't going to "throw eight reality shows at the wall, and maybe something will stick" -- a reference to NBC's willy-nilly approach this summer.

"When you're No. 1, that's the price you pay," Zucker said this week. "Everybody's gunning for the guy on top." As fodder for journalists, he added: "That's a natural."

Still, the focus on NBC goes deeper than that, beginning with Zucker's role as an outsider to the back-scratching Hollywood mentality. A much-heralded wunderkind who began producing the "Today" show at 26, Zucker spent a decade in that rough-and-tumble world (beating cancer in the process) before landing at the entertainment division in December 2000. At the time, he said he hoped to bring "a fresh set of eyes" to the programming game.

In some respects he has, from "super-sizing" NBC's "Must-See TV" comedies with 40-minute-plus episodes to experimenting with "Saturday Night Live" in prime time. Yet his appointment was in large part a reaction to NBC's belated entry into so-called reality television, at a time when the elusiveness of scripted hits has been the more pressing issue.

In a March 2001 interview, NBC Chairman Bob Wright stated the network must preserve its "scripted sensibilities" while bringing the immediacy "Today" exemplified to prime time. "This is his time," he said of Zucker. "He has those different worlds in his gun sights."

Since not long after his arrival, however, Zucker, now 38, has as often as not found himself in the cross hairs. Competitors resent him, not only because of his "the old rules don't apply" mantra but the fact that his journalism background has made him so facile in spinning key media outlets.

And yes, NBC is the network to beat on multiple levels, giving rivals an extra incentive to chop it down to size. Although CBS finished the 2002-03 season as the most-watched network overall, NBC has consistently been first within the key demographics that dictate advertising rates. After inhaling "Must-See TV's" dust since "Magnum, P.I." was KO'd by "The Cosby Show," CBS has now made that night a race thanks to "Survivor" and "CSI." Fox, meanwhile, with "American Idol" and "Joe Millionaire," came within a few hairs of NBC among younger viewers and is salivating at the prospect of dethroning it.

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