NBC renews 'West Wing' but breaks up 'Friends'

Times Staff Writer

NBC has confirmed that President Bartlet's term on "The West Wing" will run at least two more years while closing the door on "Friends" beyond next season, when the network will pay nearly $10 million for each episode of TV's top-rated comedy.

NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker announced the expected "West Wing" renewal at the network's meeting with TV critics and reporters Friday in Hollywood. Although the show's ratings have diminished this season, he said the three-time Emmy winner is "still the best show on television" and a hugely valuable asset.

Because of those declining ratings, however, the deal is considerably more reasonable -- and the negotiations were less contentious -- than either might have been six months ago. Sources say NBC will pay producer Warner Bros. Television roughly $6 million an episode, with the exact figure contingent on how well the show continues to perform -- and includes compensation covering the studio's production deficits from the first four seasons.

NBC also has an option for a third additional year, provided the show meets certain minimum rating levels.

Both the network and studio also categorically denied speculation that the renewal was in any way tied to negotiations between them on other properties. Several program distributors have intimated as much regarding NBC's decision to buy a new daytime talk program, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, to air on its owned-and-operated group of TV stations beginning in the fall.

Zucker called "The West Wing" and "Friends" cornerstones of the network but acknowledged that with the latter ending its run, the pressure is on to develop new sitcom hits. In addition, NBC's current commitment to "Frasier" ends in 2004, after its 11th season, and the show's ratings have dwindled -- though Zucker noted that NBC has "done 'Frasier' no favors" with the weakness of the shows preceding it Tuesday nights.

In other scheduling announcements, Zucker said that the family drama "Providence," which last aired in December, is officially canceled, after having left open the possibility of additional episodes.

He also announced that "Hunter," revived with a movie in November, will return with a new weekly version starring Fred Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer in April.

The cop show will join the network's Saturday lineup.

Perhaps the highest-profile of NBC's midseason shows is "Kingpin," a gritty drama about a Mexican drug cartel, which the network will air Sundays and Tuesdays beginning Feb. 2. The program will also be repeated in Spanish on Telemundo, with a longer, more explicit "director's cut" version to play on the Bravo cable channel -- both sister networks owned by NBC.

Although Zucker stated that the just-acquired Bravo will not be turned into a repository for NBC reruns, a 12-hour marathon of the first-year drama "Boomtown" will run on the channel in March, coinciding with its return after a hiatus to make room for "Kingpin."

NBC's May sweeps lineup will include a two-hour Bob Hope 100th birthday special, a TV movie biography of embattled lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, with Cybill Shepherd in the title role, and a guest appearance by Madonna on "Will & Grace" being billed as her episodic television debut.

NBC will also again test a wide variety of unscripted programs during the summer, including a concept titled "Around the World in 80 Dates" and a street-racing show from the producers of the movie "The Fast and the Furious."

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