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Peacock touts parity position

Zucker optimistic about NBC's post-'Friends' ratings

NBC Universal TV Group prexy Jeff Zucker Friday acknowledged the Peacock could go from first to worst in the ratings this season, but predicted the net is nonetheless “headed for another very good year” in the May upfront market.

In a wide-ranging session with journalists at the winter edition of the TV Critics Assn. press tour, Zucker and NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly touched on a host of issues, with Zucker issuing blunt assessments of everything from Dan Rather’s role in Memogate to FCC chairman Michael Powell’s resignation. Mostly, however, Zucker and Reilly remained relentlessly upbeat as they sought to put the best face on the primetime health of the post- “Friends” Peacock.

“Things did get a little tougher than we expected,” Reilly said. “(But) it’s healthy to be knocked out of your comfort zone every once in a while. And in a winning culture, that leads to focus and fosters creativity.”

For his part, Zucker said his optimism is based in part on what he believes is “an era of three-network parity” between ABC, CBS and NBC, with the traditional Big Three webs bunched closely together when sports programming is factored out of the ratings equation. Even when big sports events like “Monday Night Football,” the Super Bowl and the World Series are factored in — as they almost always are when most analysts assess a net’s standing — the NUT Group supremo said, “You’re really looking at four-network parity.”

“The fact is, all this is going to tighten up,” Zucker said. “We think we’re going to have a stronger second half of the season than we did the first half of the season.

“The bottom line is, you’ll probably have about three-tenths, at the most, separating the four networks when you include everything at the end of the season. It’s never been this close. There’s never been such parity between the four networks.”

Zucker admitted he’s not happy about his net’s current standings in the ratings.

“We don’t like being in third; we’re not going to like being in fourth, if that were to happen,” he said, adding he didn’t think it would. “We knew we were going to be in for a tough year this year in the post-‘Friends’ era. It turned out to be a little tougher than we expected. And it’s given Kevin (Reilly) something to fight for.”

He also indicated Reilly would not wholly take the blame for this season’s results. “We’re all in this together,” Zucker said.

After the formal session with journos, Zucker sought to put NBC’s current difficulties in perspective, noting the net had until recently been on a hot streak.

“I was there, and now we’re going through a more difficult (phase),” he said. “We were a pretty dominant first for those four years (when Zucker ran the entertainment division).”

He also argued that, except for ABC, NBC has actually had the best development of any net this season. “And that includes HBO,” Zucker added.

While he declined to say whether NBC would finish first in ad sales dollars this May, Zucker said the net’s strength in upscale viewers should still command premium ad rates.

“What will really sell underneath this is the quality of that audience, and the upscale nature of (NBC’s) audience is still incredibly dominant over everyone,” he said. “We feel very good going into (May).”

Elsewhere during NBC’s day at the TCA press tour:

  • NBC has struck a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television for the rights to a half-hour laffer pilot that Jerry Seinfeld might help produce, a Peacock spokesman said. Scribes Eileen Conn and Larry Miller are writing the project, which Sony apparently developed inhouse. As part of the deal, NBC will help finance production of the pilot, though much of the tab will be picked up by Sony.

  • Peacock has extended “Saturday Night Live” exec producer Lorne Michaels’ contract through 2012. Pact keeps his NBC U TV Studios-based TV pod in place as well.

Previously announced special on the first five years of “SNL” (Daily Variety, May 19) will air Feb. 20.

  • Sudser “Passions” will be back for a seventh season, keeping it in place until July 2006. Skein matched its best women 18-49 ranking earlier this month.

  • Donald Trump has signed to host at least two more installments of “The Apprentice.”

  • “The Office” now has a premiere date: It’s set to bow Tuesday, March 22, at 9:30 p.m.

As expected, “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” will air Fridays at 10 (starting April 1 after two weeks in the “ER” timeslot), while “The Contender” is moving timeslots and premiere dates (Daily Variety, Jan. 21). Boxing skein now is set to air Wednesdays at 8 p.m. starting March 9 (and following a March 7 premiere).

There’s been buzz that the show could be pushed to summer, though creator Mark Burnett has said that’s impossible given a locked-in May finale fight set for Caesars Palace.

Buzzworthy limited skein “Revelations” premieres Wednesday, April 13, at 9 p.m.

  • Zucker said NBC and Warner Bros. TV are in negotiations on a license fee deal to bring back “The West Wing” next season. Exec also said he “would be stunned” if the net doesn’t renew “Joey,” “Medical Investigation,” “Medium” and “Committed” for next season.

  • Second season of “The Biggest Loser,” unscripted drama “The Law Firm” and previously announced reality skeins starring Tommy Lee and Kathy Hilton will air this summer.