Peacock polishes sked

Prexy upbeat about net's fall prospects, 'Friends' spinoff

Hey, NBC, how you doin’?

According to Jeff Zucker, the Peacock’s just fine — particularly now that a long-in-the-works deal for a Matt LeBlanc-led “Friends” spinoff is a reality.

In what could be his last summer press tour appearance as NBC Entertainment prexy, Zucker betrayed not a hint of worry over the state of his network’s primetime sked headed into a 2003-04 season that will see the end of comedy powerhouse “Friends”; the almost-certain finale for “Frasier”; a risky and revamped Tuesday lineup; and the increasingly loud footsteps of a feisty Fox Broadcasting Co. closing in on NBC’s demo dominance.

“There’s been a lot of talk about people breathing down our neck, but the fact is, in three years the primetime leadership race has hardly changed at all … (from) when I first arrived here,” Zucker said.

One reason for the calm: After months of speculation — and weeks of frenzied final negotiations rushed, in part, so Zucker could announce the project at the Television Critics Assn. press tour — NBC finally confirmed that “Joey” is a go for fall 2004 (Daily Variety, Jan. 21) .

Deal, along with the hiring of FX entertainment chief Kevin Reilly, means Zucker has satisfied two of the conditions many Peacock insiders believe are essential to the exec’s return to Gotham in a loftier role: Finding a replacement for “Friends”– and for himself.

Reilly, still under contract to FX, wasn’t at Zucker’s session and, in fact, his name didn’t come up once during Zucker’s presentation.

As for “Joey,” Peacock has ordered 13 episodes of the series, and guaranteed LeBlanc a 22-episode payday of $400,000-$500,000 per episode — a massive sum for a first-year comedy, but well below the $1 million per-seg LeBlanc now makes. While LeBlanc’s taking a pay cut, he’ll get a significant ownership stake in the skein from producer Warner Bros. TV as well as two-picture guarantee from WBTV’s sister film studio. A statement from LeBlanc’s reps called the pact “a complex deal of unprecedented proportion.”

No word on timeslot

Zucker declined to say whether “Joey” would inherit “Friends’ ” lead Thursday 8 p.m. slot (though it will air on Thursdays), but did confirm Kevin Bright, an original exec producer on “Friends,” will serve as exec producer and director on “Joey.” Scott Silveri and Shana Goldberg-Meehan, two longtime “Friends” exec producers, are also on board as exec producers.

“Friends” creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane will not be associated with “Joey,” though Zucker said the duo have “blessed” the project.

NBC will pay WBTV a premium license fee significantly higher than most frosh comedies, though the studio will still incur a production deficit. If the skein makes certain ratings targets, that license fee (and possibly LeBlanc’s paycheck) are expected to go up starting in season two.

Zucker said NBC never pursued a “Friends” spinoff with any other actors, and that initial conversations about the project began nearly 18 months ago. Talks were put on hold when Zucker wrangled a 10th season of “Friends,” though all sides had maintained interest in the project.

While crix expressed some skepticism about LeBlanc carrying his own skein, Zucker was confident thesp’s Joey character was ripe for further comic exploration.

America’s character

“Over the evolution of that show, Joey has emerged as the character that America roots for and loves,” Zucker said. “Matt is the one who has clearly emerged as the crowd favorite.”

Zucker said producers have a general idea of what the spinoff will be and what will happen to Joey post- “Friends.” Exec declined to elaborate on plot details, however, noting no final decisions have been made, including whether show will be based in Los Angeles.

Of course, “We’d have to explain, if he stayed in New York, where everyone else is,” Zucker said. “The easiest way is to take him out of New York.”

While there’s no guarantee viewers will flock to a “Friends” spinoff — hello, “AfterMASH” — Zucker believes the presence of the skein on NBC’s Thursday sked, as well as the continued strength of “ER,” “goes a long way toward securing our continued stranglehold on that night.”

Zucker conceded that NBC did have problems in need of fixing headed into fall, specifically Tuesday nights. He also took the fall for mishandling the scheduling of last spring’s “Kingpin,” saying he did “a stupid job and a bad job” by airing the skein twice a week.

Summer a success

Otherwise, Zucker was upbeat about the net’s fall prospects, particularly given a summer perf he deemed a success — despite the lack of any breakout hits or the emergence of a new reality format that could be brought back midseason.

“We cannot tolerate low-rated repeats anymore,” he said. “This (summer) has worked for us on a number of different levels … (and) as a result, we will employ exactly the same strategy next summer.”

Elsewhere during Zucker’s presentation:

  • NBC announced plans to air one-minute short films, dubbed “1MMs,” during breaks in primetime programming. Project was the brainchild of John Wells and helmer Paris Barclay, who will contribute to the series of minipics.

Barclay, Shawn Ryan, Hank Perlman and Corky Quakenbush are already set to direct “1MMs,” which will contain 30 seconds of action leading into a 30-second resolution. Ten pics have already been shot, and Zucker hopes the films will give viewers an incentive to stay tuned to the net.

It’s also possible some of the vignettes could evolve into series.

  • Following the success of a “Behind the Camera” telepic focusing on “Three’s Company,” NBC alternative/longform topper Jeff Gaspin is developing a take on “Charlie’s Angels” for next summer.

  • After previously insisting the “Coupling” pilot would air as filmed, Zucker said an oral sex reference to “swallowing” will likely be reworked to remove the offending word from the pilot’s cold open.

“There was no advertiser problem with this, we just decided after thinking long and hard,” he said. “We don’t want that to be the first image of the show.”

  • Zucker said a final decision on the fate of “Frasier” would be announced sometime this fall — giving the show enough time to wrap things up, but avoiding having to promote the final season of both shows at the same time.

  • Zucker said he and U-based Dick Wolf are both interested in a fourth “Law & Order,” confirming a report last spring in the New York Times.

“But there’s nothing going on while Vivendi is still up in the air,” he said.

  • NBC probably won’t pursue original scripted fare in the summer anytime soon, a shift from Zucker’s previously-stated goals. “It’s not something that we believe in yet,” he said.

  • Exec defended using “Access Hollywood” anchor Pat O’Brien as a correspondent on “Dateline NBC,” saying O’Brien “adhered to the strictest standards” of the news division when reporting for NBC News. Zucker said it’s OK if O’Brien adheres to less stringent standards when working only for “Access.”

  • “Third Watch” will air in widescreen format this fall, while John Wells-led “The West Wing” has enlisted a new team of scribes that includes Carol Flint, Alexa Junge, Peter Noah, Lawrence O’Donnell, Paul Redford, Josh Singer, Eli Attie, Deborah Cahn and Mark Goffman.

  • Tiffani Thiessen will appear in first three segs of “Good Morning, Miami.”

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