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When ‘Friends’ ends

NBC preps but won't rule out skein's return

The end of “Friends” doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Peacock, NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker contends.

While admitting that the loss of “Friends” will create a “gaping hole” in the network’s schedule, Zucker said it is premature to predict how NBC will adapt to life without Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey and Phoebe.

“The fact is nothing is going to replace ‘Friends,’ ” he said. “When ‘Cosby’ went off the air, nothing replaced ‘Cosby.’ When ‘Cheers’ went off the air, nothing replaced ‘Cheers.’ When ‘Seinfeld’ went off, nothing replaced ‘Seinfeld.’ Something else will have to step up and move up.”

Speaking with reporters Tuesday during NBC’s portion of the Television Critics Assn. Press tour in Pasadena, Zucker said he didn’t want to shut the door on the slight chance “Friends” might yet come back for another year.

“I wouldn’t 100% put nails in the coffin yet,” he said.

Sports vindication

Zucker also said he didn’t expect the net’s ratings to take a hit despite the loss of NBA coverage this coming season. The exec pointed out that NBC had remained No. 1 despite losing NFL and Major League Baseball contracts as well. He said the decision to move away from pro sports was a financially sound one, pointing to Fox’s big write-off last season.

“I think the biggest story of the last television season was the $900 million that Fox wrote off in sports,” he said. “Going forward, I don’t see how the other networks are going to be able to tolerate (sports’ high pricetags).”

Summer personality

Meanwhile, Zucker — pleased with the strong results for Monday night’s premiere of “Meet My Folks” — admitted the Peacock has started to take on a different personality during the summer. The network of “The West Wing” has taken heat from critics for airing lower-brow reality skeins during the warm months.

“I think it’s what we have to do to survive,” he said. “To be a network today, you have to program from ‘The West Wing’ to ‘Fear Factor.’ ”

Also at the tour:

  • Peacock will launch the bulk of its fall sked during “premiere week,” kicking things off Monday, Sept. 23 with a 90-minute edition of “Fear Factor” and a 90-minute season opener for “Crossing Jordan.” (“Third Watch” returns the following week, Sept. 30.)

Tuesday’s lineup, including new entries “In-Laws” and “Hidden Hills,” bows Sept. 24; Wednesday returns Sept. 25 with a two-hour premiere of “The West Wing.” (“Law & Order” is back Oct. 2.)

Thursday’s lineup, featuring newcomer “Good Morning Miami,” is back Sept. 26, while Fridays kick off Sept. 27 with a two-hour “Dateline NBC” (“Providence” returns Oct. 4). “Kiss the Girls” leads the parade of theatricals on Saturday, Sept. 28, while the Sunday slate — featuring new dramas “American Dreams” and “Boomtown” — bows Sept. 29.

  • NBC will fast-track its “Martha Stewart Story” telepic (Daily Variety, May 22) in order to air it by May sweeps.

Zucker said the recent insider trading probe of Stewart convinced the net to move fast on the project. Pic, which is based on Christopher Byron’s bestseller “Martha, Inc.,” will reference the recent scandal.

  • Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Cusack and David Arquette have signed up to star in the two-hour telepic “A Very Muppet Christmas.” NBC’s telepic roster also includes the reunion movie “Hunter: Return to Justice,” featuring “Hunter” stars Fred Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer. Despite last year’s overdose on nostalgia, Zucker said he has no plans for additional reminiscing, saying that trend “has probably run its course.”

  • The drama pilot “War Stories” will be reworked into a two-hour telepic/backdoor pilot. NBC had produced an hour-long pilot last spring but didn’t pick up the show; shooting starts next week on the project’s second hour.

  • Katie Couric and Matt Lauer will anchor an hourlong Emmy Awards pregame show at 7 p.m. on Sept. 22, immediately before the Conan O’Brien-hosted kudocast. “Access Hollywood’s” Pat O’Brien and Nancy O’Dell will co-host an “After the Emmys” special.

  • “Big Brother 2” winner Will Kirby has been named host of the summer Peacock reality skein “Love Shack.”

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