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NBC's list of first names

The network throws its hopes behind Martha, Earl and Joey, looking to pull back out of fourth.

July 25, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

The NBC Self-Deprecation Tour made a pit stop at the Beverly Hilton on Sunday, where Kevin Reilly, the network's president of entertainment, faced television critics alone -- top honcho Jeff Zucker sat in the back of the room -- and compared NBC's last season fourth-place finish to undergoing a colonic.

"It wasn't a lot of fun to go through at the time, but it's going to be healthy in the long run," Reilly joked. "I do feel a thirst for creativity and a focus for getting NBC back on the leading edge. This is what is ultimately going to fuel our comeback."

The network's hopes are largely centered on two people: one known widely as Martha, the other just goes by Earl.

Martha is Martha Stewart, who is headlining the new version of "The Apprentice," in which contestants vie for a job at her very large company. Critics were not pleased that Stewart was a no-show at the press tour, but, explained Reilly, there were legitimate concerns, like that pesky ankle bracelet she's been wearing as an accessory lately.

"It came down to logistical difficulty," Reilly said. "With her limited time with her house arrest, trying to run a corporation, prepping two television shows and the awkwardness of satellite interviews, it just felt like logistically it was not going to put the whole thing in the best light."

In addition to the new installment of "The Apprentice," Stewart is working with NBC Universal and reality producer Mark Burnett on a syndicated talk show called "Martha," of all things. On "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," Stewart will show a more vulnerable side, and she will have her own catchphrase, Reilly promised.

"My Name Is Earl," the other show Reilly seems most excited about, is a single-camera comedy about a crook who has an epiphany after he wins a small fortune in the lottery and gets hit by a car. Created by Greg Garcia, the comedy, which will be paired with "The Office" on Tuesday nights, is NBC's highest-testing comedy pilot in 15 years and one that NBC is banking on. Earl is played by Jason Lee, who described his hapless character as "not the sharpest spoon in the drawer" and said he cannot worry about the pressure for the show to perform well for NBC.

"Honestly, I'm just doing my job, really," Lee said. "I can't show up on the set every day with that in my mind. It would be just too distracting."

And then there's that other guy America knows as Joey. "Joey" didn't perform exceptionally in its first season, but Reilly thinks the future looks brighter not only for Joey (Matt LeBlanc) but for the network on Thursdays, even though there's new competition on the horizon from Chris Rock on UPN. This year, Joey is finally going to make it big in Hollywood, his nephew is moving out, and his sister is getting a job with his agent.

"As painful as last season was, it's healthy," Reilly said. "I feel a desire to say, you know what, we're in the advertising business, we need to sell ads, we need to comply with the FCC, but you know what, let's reach for the creativity. Let's try to find that explosive higher ground ... and if it means we're struggling a little bit in the short run with some advertising concerns, so be it. We got to get back, and we got to get popping."

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