Wait-And-See TV, NBC Hedges Its Thursday Night Bet

Like the star of its unlikely but powerful reality series, NBC came off the upfront ropes swinging--telling advertisers that it's still a contender on Thursday nights, and that it has the moves that will keep it on top next season and beyond.

While acknowledging that NBC could be in a tough spot with the loss of "Friends" and "Frasier," the network quickly tried to put those thoughts to rest with much of the first hour of Monday's upfront presentation devoted to its Thursday night schedule. It included an appearance by "Apprentice" star Donald Trump and the first public showing of the complete pilot of "Joey," a sitcom that will take the "Friends" slot on Thursday night in the fall.

"Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated," said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal and the executive who guided the nearly three-hour upfront presentation as confidently as he's guided NBC to three straight seasons of dominance in every ratings measure. Zucker predicted that when the smoke cleared next year, NBC would again dominate.

Zucker said that instead of NBC finding itself in dire straits, it was instead looking at an unparalleled position of strength: It found the second-most popular show on television in "The Apprentice," strength in freshman drama "Las Vegas," and the resurgence of "Crossing Jordan" when it returned to Sunday night a few months ago. And NBC was pumped by the pilot of "Joey," the "Friends" spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc and Drea de Matteo.

NBC was so confident it had a winner that it took 22 minutes during the upfront to show the pilot, which Zucker said has only been done twice before in NBC's history: With "Cosby" and "The Golden Girls," both television classics.

"All of the momentum is here," Zucker told advertisers and agencies. "No one is finishing the season in such great shape."

While some in the media business--and certainly the other networks, who have had their lunch eaten by NBC in prime time and elsewhere for years--may have smelled blood in the water as "Friends" came to an end, NBC presented a confident face to the folks who pay the bills. And NBC executives were confident enough to poke fun at themselves, with "Apprentice" star Donald Trump blustering that he had "saved NBC's ass" and host Conan O'Brien riffing on how NBC was "not screwed yet."

But NBC is only replacing five shows--four hours--on its schedule in the fall. The new shows are "Joey" and "Father of the Pride" (a CGI-animated series based on the imagined lives of Sigfried and Roy's lions that drew O'Brien's criticism) along with dramas "Hawaii," "LAX," and "Medical Investigation."

It's the least amount of programming NBC has replaced in four years. It has held back seven shows--including five sitcoms and the latest "Law & Order" series--to debut later in the year. That strategy is part of NBC's plan to go to 52-week-a-year programming, something that rival Fox will try starting at the beginning of next month. NBC itself will begin the TV season early, trotting out a large portion of its schedule following its wall-to-wall coverage of the Summer Olympics in Athens at the end of August.

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