NBC and the Funny Factor?

NBC, is that supposed to be funny?

Wednesday, January 22, 2003 –

HOLLYWOOD — Jeff Zucker looks like a character actor who makes his living playing the square guy on TV sitcoms. Short, stocky, bullet-headed and big-jawed, he’d make a perfect office manager or nerdy boss character, the kind of guy who is the butt of jokes. The only question about the character would be the whereabouts of his sense of humour.

Zucker is president of NBC Entertainment and it is actually difficult to tell when he’s joking. It’s also impossible to tell when some NBC sitcoms are meant to be funny, which may be some kind of trickle-down effect, but that’s another story.

Zucker came here to announce new programs and strategies for NBC and mentioned that Dateline, NBC’s news magazine, was going to do an hour-long special on Michael Jackson’s face. I thought he was kidding. I even wrote it in my notes — “Joke re Dateline special on M. Jackson’s face.” It turned out that he wasn’t joking.

There really will be a Dateline special on Jackson’s face. Zucker later described it as “ridiculous but fascinating” and moaned that the show would get lots of attention while a recent special about Iraq had garnered no coverage and fewer viewers than expected.

Fair enough, but it’s weird that people can’t tell when Zucker is joking. At the start of his presentation, Zucker was the star of a bad little comedy sketch in which he agreed to atone for putting Fear Factor on the air by eating something really gross. He was given choices to represent competing networks — dead mice for the Disney-owned ABC, roadkill for Fox, and so forth. He chose to eat the cow’s eyeball that symbolized CBS. He nibbled on it and swallowed. Two female NBC staffers sitting in front of me were gagging as they watched.

Later Zucker admitted, with reluctance, that it had been a candy eyeball. The two staffers were confused and embarrassed.

It was a stupid bit of attempted comedy, weird and annoying, just like so many of NBC’s endless stream of third-rate sitcoms and the network’s slippery strategies to beat the competition.

The NBC session began with a soundtrack — Bette Midlerwarbling You Gotta Have Friends, which was clearly meant to be humorous. Just before Christmas, the network persuaded the Friends cast to return for one more season. Friends is the most important show on NBC and the most popular comedy on TV. It holds together NBC’s Thursday night line-up.

But the final season will not mean the usual 24 or 26 episodes. The fabulously rich and powerful cast of Friends only agreed to do 18 episodes. Zucker admitted that the hour-long series finale will count as two episodes, so that means only 17 new episodes.

NBC is always pulling this sort of stunt. In the February sweeps period, many of its sitcoms — Friends, Will & Grace and Scrubs — will be “supersized” into episodes of 35 or 40 minutes. If you tape these shows on your VCR, you’ll go insane figuring out when they start and finish. It’s annoyed viewers before, but NBC is ticking with the trick.

So it serves NBC right that, with new supersized salaries being paid to the Friends cast, the Thursday night prime-time line-up is going to cost the network $24-million (U.S.) a week. CBS, which has made inroads on Thursday night with Survivor, spends a mere $6-million to reach almost the same number of viewers.

I have no idea how much NBC will pay Madonna, Demi Moore and Minnie Driver to appear on Will & Grace later this season, but these people don’t work for peanuts. In fact, the staggering cost of putting on a bunch of sitcoms and ER (it begins at 9:59 p.m., not 10, by the way) makes the network look like one of those dot-com bubbles that’s about to burst.

While other networks rush new reality-TV shows to air, NBC says will keep its offerings for the summer. The list includes Love Shack, Around the World in 80 Dates, Race to the Altar and The Restaurant. It’s the last on the list that’s garnering interest. Produced by Mark Burnett, who produces Survivor for CBS, it involves NBC buying a restaurant in New York, hiring staff, opening the restaurant to customers and filming the entire thing.

It’s not an entirely original idea. Similar shows have run on Canadian specialty channels about opening restaurants, designing the menu and documenting the hiring and firing of staff. The Restaurant is not going to cost very much for Burnett or NBC. Product placement deals have already taken care of most of the cost.

The place will operate as a real restaurant for the summer. People can make reservations and eat there, as long as they’re prepared to be on TV while chowing down. Maybe the strategy is to make a lot of money with this venture in order to pay the exorbitant cost of getting Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox back to Friends for another few episodes.

Finally, Zucker said there’s an NBC movie coming about the life and times of Martha Stewart, starring Cybill Shepherd. Alert now for more weirdness about what might be a joke, critics asked whether the Stewart movie will be funny. Zucker said, “No, it’s not going to be funny.”

Everybody laughed and Zucker said, “Although some might find it funny. But that’s not the intention.”

Who knows with this guy and this network?

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