Ya Gotta Have “Friends”

By BILL BRIOUX — Toronto Sun

HOLLYWOOD — It was no accident that NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker entered yesterday’s press conference to the strains of Bette Midler singing You’ve Got To Have Friends.

NBC has Friends for one more season, thanks to a deal that will reportedly push the network’s weekly programming costs each Thursday night to $24 million US.

CBS, which has narrowed the ratings gap considerably on Thursdays, spends $6 million on shows such as CSI and Without A Trace. “So who really wins this race?” asked one critic.

Zucker briskly defended the strategy to keep Friends at any cost, pointing out that NBC is by far the most profitable network on Thursday nights, and every night.

Friends will air only 18 episodes next season (down from 24) including a one-hour finale. “The door is not open after that,” Zucker declared.

NBC also has renewed The West Wing for two more years, with an option on a third. This despite the fact that the White House drama has slipped in the ratings. “It’s still the best show on TV,” Zucker said, predicting a seventh 18-49 ratings crown for NBC in the past eight years.

Zucker recently told Access Hollywood that he would tackle any Fear Factor stunt to keep Friends on NBC. Naturally, a tray was wheeled out full of gross Fear Factor goodies for Zucker to choose from, including CBS eyeballs, a dead WB frog and some furry Fox roadkill.

Zucker, who maintains that the success of NBC is due to three factors — quality, stability and Fear Factor — chose the eyeballs and gobbled one down. He later admitted that it was a fake Gummi eye.

Some of Zucker’s other pronouncements seemed a bit suspect.

He dismissed the reality strategies of his competitors as short-term fixes, and then announced 10 NBC summer shows that were almost all reality-based. New episodes of Dog Eat Dog will be joined by Race To The Alter, Last Comic Standing and The Fast And The Furious, an unscripted road-race series loosely inspired by the hit film.

Another, The Restaurant, from Survivor’s Mark Burnett, was hyped as the first reality drama. It is set to take place in a real Manhattan eatery. The six-week series will feature product-placement ads but no wine or beer promos.

Kingpin, a show about Mexican-American drug lords, starts Feb. 2 and will run two nights a week through mid-March. Zucker is tired of hearing the crime drama compared to The Sopranos and woke up several critics by declaring Kingpin, “closer to Shakespeare than The Sopranos.”

Reporters who have sat through some of Kingpin’s Cheech & Chong dialogue guessed he was referring to Much Ado About Nothing. No one could recall hearing any Iambic pentameter from stars Sheryl Lee or Yancey Arias.

Gone for good is Providence. NBC is moving ahead with a new Hunter series, a Three’s Company TV movie and a Martha Stewart biopic starring Cybill Shepherd.

In May, the network plans to salute Bob Hope on his 100th birthday. Watching Ellie will return in March, sans clock, and a new version of Let’s Make A Deal is behind door No. 3.

In sweeps stunts, Madonna, Demi Moore and Minnie Driver will appear in February and May on Will & Grace. And a special 20-minute Saturday Night Live Weekend Update will air opposite The Super Bowl halftime show a week from tomorrow.

Finally, NBC plans to devote an entire hour of Dateline to Michael Jackson’s face. Remember: Quality, stability and Fear Factor. (More on Friends)

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