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Hilton, Reilly and 'Sopranos' fill the news

PRIOR TO MY DEPARTURE for a much-needed vacation, Kevin Reilly was still running programming at NBC, Paris Hilton roamed free, a New York appeals court had yet to rebuke the FCC for sanctioning salty exclamations at televised live events, and “The Sopranos” viewers didn’t realize just how disdainful series creator David Chase was toward them.

For the traditionally sluggish period after Memorial Day, things have clearly been a little hectic.

Back in April, I predicted that Chase’s desire to flout TV conventions made it likely “The Sopranos” would conclude “more with a whimper than a bang (or bing)” — and what an exasperating whimper it was — while Reilly’s NBC career ended when his boss, Jeff Zucker, tired of the “cellar-dweller” designation and enlisted producer Ben Silverman to revive the network.

Both were perhaps inevitable, which doesn’t make their mismanagement any less irritating.

HOLLYWOOD SHARES many attributes with big-time sports, but none more so than the familiar tactic of firing coaches after a losing season. The difficulty lies in evaluating whether such actions are genuinely necessary or simply a cathartic (and frequently, time-buying) exercise in throwing the bums out.

As a case study consider UCLA, which found itself simultaneously mired in football and basketball mediocrity under coaches Bob Toledo and Steve Lavin, respectively, before ousting each of them.

In Lavin’s replacement, Ben Howland, the Bruins have roared back to the peak of college basketball, engineering a turnaround reminiscent of NBC in the early ’90s. With Toledo’s successor, Karl Dorrell, they apparently swapped one stretch of mediocrity for another.

NBC’s lineup is in slightly less dire straits than ABC was in 2004 — triggering its own sloppy succession hand-off when the network, as mom likes to say, couldn’t find its proverbial ass with both hands. Now, wherever credit rightfully belongs for birthing “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” the jewel of Disney’s TV empire quickly located its aforementioned posterior, which might not have happened as readily had the old team remained in place, so perhaps altering the chemistry was the only way to begin a recovery.

More often than not, however, that’s a questionable proposition, with the NBC shake-up primarily resembling an attempt to create the perception of responding to the network’s losing ways — a decision, bereft of any other grand master plan, to implement change hoping that inspiration somehow springs from chaos.

From the cheap seats, of course — or the really expensive ones in the corporate front office — such personnel moves send a signal that those in charge are attempting to do something, unwilling to settle for second (or fourth) best. Usually, though, to quote another UCLA coach, the legendary John Wooden, when examining such maneuvers, one shouldn’t confuse activity with accomplishment.

As always, only time will tell whether NBC’s poorly orchestrated baton pass marks the prologue to a victory march or a rearrangement of deckchairs on the Titanic — and further evidence of the Teflon coating that has seemingly enveloped Zucker since he vacated “Today.”

In a broader sense, Zucker’s ascent within NBC Universal has corresponded with the melding of news and entertainment — bringing us back to Ms. Hilton and the beyond-satire moment last week when CNN and MSNBC abruptly abandoned covering the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs to capture a fleeting aerial glimpse of the willowy heiress via a helicopter. All the choppers hovering over West Hollywood conveyed the unsettling impression somebody had declared war on Laurel Canyon.

By tossing Reilly overboard, NBC achieved the short-term goal of shooing off birds of prey circling over Burbank, at least for awhile. Yet as viewers of “The Sopranos” can attest, life’s never entirely fair in terms of who gets whacked; it’s just a matter of how messy and disappointing the ending is going to be.

OVERHEATED RHETORIC: Had to laugh Sunday during an interview with an Australian radio host, who wanted to know how it felt here with “‘Sopranos’ fever” sweeping America.

Big place, America, home as it is to 300 million people. To put things in perspective, not quite 12 million of them watched “The Sopranos.”

That’s a fine number by any measure — especially in today’s fragmented TV world — but hardly a fever. More like a rash.

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