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NBC is learning from Trump

The breakout hit 'The Apprentice' is about moguls-in-the-making, but it's the network that seems to be learning the big lessons.

March 03, 2004|Scott Collins and Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writers

NBC is making a huge bet that Donald Trump can pick up where Ross and Rachel are leaving off.

Faced with the imminent departure of "Friends," the sitcom that wraps in May after 10 seasons as one of TV's highest-rated series, NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker announced Tuesday that the network has ordered 32 additional episodes of "The Apprentice," the unscripted program in which young executives compete for a top job alongside New York real estate mogul Trump.

After years of largely failed attempts to develop new Thursday sitcoms, NBC this winter has found itself with a genuine sensation in "The Apprentice," which airs Thursdays at 9 p.m.

"Apprentice" will produce enough episodes to last at least through the 2004-05 season, generating two "cycles" -- each with different contestants -- of 16 episodes apiece. Scripted series typically yield 22 to 24 original episodes each season. While NBC did not specify where the new episodes will air, it is widely assumed that "Apprentice" will remain in its current slot.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Apprentice" -- A caption with an article in Wednesday's Calendar section about the NBC series "The Apprentice" misidentified the subject of the photo. The picture is of former contestant Tammy Lee, not Katrina Campins, whose first name the caption incorrectly gave as Kristina.

In a conference call with reporters that coincided with the end of the February sweeps ratings period, Zucker called "Apprentice" "a huge game-changer for us," adding that he expected the unscripted series to help compensate for the loss of "Friends."

In fact, Zucker noted that NBC is projected to win the February sweeps -- at least among the young-adult viewers most prized by advertisers -- "by a margin that surprised even us." However, CBS is expected to rank first among all viewers, as it has the previous four sweeps periods (the period does not end officially until tonight).

CBS is betting that Zucker's faith in Trump will prove misguided. Over the past four seasons, the two networks have turned Thursday into a prime-time battleground, with CBS throwing its most-watched series, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," as well as the popular "Survivor," against NBC's once-untouchable sitcom lineup. As a result, NBC has, at least until recently, steadily lost audience share to CBS on Thursdays.

CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves believes that ordering more "Apprentice" episodes won't change that.

"We think without 'Friends,' [NBC is] going to be at a loss," Moonves told reporters. He suggested that CBS would not plan any changes to its own Thursday schedule, saying that he and other executives are "thrilled" with their current lineup.

Other rivals criticized NBC for effectively casting aside the two-hour Thursday sitcom block, which has been the network's anchor for two decades and was once sold as "must-see TV."

"Tearing up Thursday is not exactly a vote of confidence in their [scripted program] development," an executive at a rival network said of NBC's move.

However, viewers can expect more such moves in the future. Gail Berman, the entertainment president of Fox Broadcasting Co., said that after some initial reluctance due to content concerns, large national advertisers are beginning to warm up to unscripted series.

"Advertiser acceptance of this form is just growing and growing," Berman told reporters, even if certain programs -- such as Fox's recent two-episode experiment "The Littlest Groom," about a 4-foot-5-inch bachelor searching for love -- still prompt groans from some buyers. "Obviously, ['Groom'] wasn't one of our best advertiser-friendly programs," Berman understated.

As if to underscore the importance of reality series, Fox is expected to finish the sweeps down 25% in the crucial young-adult demographic, largely because of the absence of last year's unscripted smash "Joe Millionaire."

Unscripted shows are not enough to boost ABC, meanwhile, which is down 8% in the young-adult category, for a fourth-place finish (it will finish third in the race for total viewers, behind CBS and NBC). This drop in the key demographic at the Disney-owned network is a particular embarrassment to company chairman Michael Eisner on the eve of Disney's annual meeting today in Philadelphia.

While the network has plenty of weaknesses across its schedule, softening ratings for its "Bachelorette" series this month have been especially notable.

The series "performed well," said ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun, but it was "certainly not the phenomenon" that the series was last year, when contestant Trista Rehn chose from a pool of eligible bachelors.

Braun also said that a ratings uptick for Sunday's airing of the 76th Annual Academy Awards was "significantly offset" by powerful ratings for a Michael Jackson special produced by ABC News last year.

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