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NBC admits life after ‘Friends’ is getting harder

Times Staff Writer

Calling it a “whole new era for network television,” NBC Universal Television President Jeff Zucker admitted Friday that the loss of “Friends” “turned out to be a little tougher than we expected” and that the network could possibly sink to fourth place among younger viewers if its slate of midseason shows fails to boost the network’s viewership.

Even Fox, which has lagged all season in the ratings, is likely to remain a contender among broadcast networks now that its ratings juggernaut, “American Idol,” has premiered its fourth season with record ratings.

Zucker and NBC President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly talked about the network’s lukewarm performance during an open forum with reporters at the semiannual gathering of the Television Critics Assn. in Universal City.

For the first time in several years, NBC entered the gathering not as the No. 1 network but in third place among viewers ages 18 to 49. And it showed. Both executives acknowledged the network is struggling but expressed optimism that their new crop of shows -- such as “Medium,” “Committed,” “The Office” and “The Contender,” and two miniseries, “Revelations” and “Hercules” -- will help turn things around.

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“Medium” opened to impressive ratings -- 16 million viewers tuned in for its premiere this month -- in one of the schedule’s toughest spots, opposite CBS’ “CSI: Miami,” which averages 19.5 million viewers.

“In a winning culture, [ranking third] leads to focus and fosters creativity,” Reilly said. “I can’t predict when we’re going to be No. 1, but I can say with confidence that you’re going to see some great things coming.”

Zucker also said the network is doing what it can to hold on to Katie Couric, the cohost of the “Today” show.

Couric’s contract with NBC ends in 18 months, and it is rumored that Viacom co-chairman Leslie Moonves, who oversees the CBS television network, has met with her about a possible role after “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather leaves. Moonves declined to comment on that earlier this week.

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Initially, Zucker joked about the plausibility of Couric leaving.

“All we’ve decided is that if CBS goes after Katie, we’re going after Julie Chen,” he quipped, referring to the co-anchor of CBS’ “The Early Show” and Moonves’ new wife.

Zucker also made pointed remarks about CBS News, which recently drew criticism from an independent review panel about its handling of a “60 Minutes Wednesday” report on President Bush’s military service.

Zucker said he was surprised to learn from the independent report that Rather had minimal involvement with the reporting and fact checking.

“The degree to which responsibility was abdicated on a piece about the president of the United States six weeks before the election is something that would never happen under Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams, and the lack of involvement in a piece of that magnitude was shocking,” Zucker said.

CBS’ story, which raised allegations of favoritism for President Bush while he served in the Texas Air National Guard, would not have gotten on the air at NBC because of safeguards that were in place at the network several years ago, Zucker said. NBC came under fire in 1992 after airing a “Dateline NBC” story that faked a truck crash.

“We learned lessons at NBC more than a decade ago when we had an issue with ‘Dateline,’ ” he said. “The biggest shock to us is those guidelines don’t exist there.”

CBS declined to comment on Zucker’s statements.

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Among six broadcast networks, NBC has fallen from the top spot it held for eight of the last nine seasons, to third -- behind CBS and ABC, and just ahead of Fox, which could catch up with shows such as “American Idol,” “24" and “A Simple Life” on its midseason schedule.

But as Zucker pointed out, the race is close among all four networks, and NBC remains the leader among affluent, 18- to 49-year-old viewers -- a factor that he expects advertisers to take into consideration when ordering their purchases for commercial spots this fall.

Whatever happens when the season ends in May, Zucker said, no single person will take the blame for the network’s ratings performance.

“We don’t like being in third. We’re not going to like being in fourth if that were to happen. But we don’t think that will happen. We hope it doesn’t happen. It’s incredibly tightly bunched. I don’t know what will happen,” he said.

Reilly took leadership of the network in July after a successful run at basic cable network FX, where he developed critically acclaimed and award-winning hits such as “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.” He said in an interview that he believes NBC hired him to “create some noisier fare.”

Reilly has ordered the following pilots for fall consideration: “Fathom,” a drama about aliens who live on the bottom of the ocean; “Book of Daniel,” a drama about an Episcopalian reverend who is addicted to prescription drugs and speaks to a hip Jesus; an untitled drama by Jerry Bruckheimer set in the Pentagon; “Earl,” a single-camera comedy about a redneck dimwit who wins the lottery and decides to change his life; and “Dante,” a sitcom about a self-absorbed NFL superstar and his uncle, who happens to be a “little person” played by Tony Cox (“Bad Santa”).

“NBC has been known for genre-defining shows,” said Reilly. “The first time you saw ‘Law & Order,’ ‘ER,’ ‘Miami Vice,’ ‘St. Elsewhere’ and ‘Seinfeld,’ those shows felt like they had a tone and a voice that hadn’t been seen on television before. That’s what I’m chasing.”


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