NBC, Stuck in a Hole, Has Nowhere to Look but Up

By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, July 25, 2005

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 24 NBC's plunge last TV season -- from first to fourth place among the young viewers advertisers covet -- was "like a colonic" for the network, NBC's entertainment division chief, Kevin Reilly, said Sunday.

"It wasn't a lot of fun to go through at the time, but it's going to be healthy in the long run," he told TV critics during NBC's executive Q&A at Summer TV Press Tour 2005.

"It literally took any residual sense of entitlement, or complacency, at our company and blew it out," Reilly continued. Critics tittered. "Truth is, the kick in the [heinie] is going to get us back on our game," he told his listeners, who were enchanted with his candid if slightly vulgar comments -- in contrast to the clench-jawed first ladies of CBS and UPN, who held Q&A sessions last week.

Finishing the season in fourth place was actually "like a weird monkey off the back," Reilly said.

"The business is cyclical. What we're going through is no different than any other business in America goes through at any given time when they're dominant. Nobody stays on top all the time," he went on, adding, "I didn't think ABC was going to get their act together so quick."

ABC, which had toiled in the ratings basement for several seasons, rebounded in a big way last season, thanks largely to freshman hits "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" as well as the reality series "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Several critics noted that Reilly sounded awfully humble for an NBC suit and wondered whether this signaled that we'd see less of the network's trademark arrogance this coming season. Specifically: fewer ads insisting that virtually every one of its new shows was a hit; no more confounding home recorders with series that started or ended a few minutes before or after viewers expected them to; less shuffling of series around the prime-time landscape.

Reilly admitted that with all the shifting of series, even he had trouble finding shows. NBC's new mantra is: "Put a show in its time period, leave it in its time period, start it on time."

"We're insane if we stay on the same track," he said. "That's the definition of insanity -- to keep making the same mistakes and doing things the same way. . . . That sense of entitlement of who we think we are is gone."

Speaking thereof, NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker did not join Reilly onstage at the tour for the first time. Zucker -- who, when he had Reilly's job, did so much to earn NBC its reputation of being cocky -- was standing at the back of the room.

Asked by the TV Column why he had not joined Reilly onstage, Zucker replied only by pointing to his publicist, who said that Reilly had said he wanted to fly solo for the network's first press-tour appearance since its descent in the ratings.

Asked by an Associated Press reporter standing nearby if he cared to comment on Reilly having acknowledged that NBC had made some serious mistakes in its decision-making process over the past couple seasons, Zucker responded:

"I didn't hear that. NBC made serious mistakes? I didn't hear that."

"What did you hear?" the AP reporter asked.

"He expressed the position that NBC is in," Zucker said. "We're in a rebuilding phase. Nobody's in denial about that."

The Matt LeBlanc vehicle "Joey" will undergo substantial changes this season, Reilly told critics. The lead character will finally make it in Hollywood, and Drea de Matteo, who plays Joey's sister in the series, will go to work for Joey's agent, played by Jennifer Coolidge.

And, most important, Joey's dweeby nephew is moving out of the apartment and Joey is getting a new fellow-actor pal. Reilly said he'd heard plans for the first few episodes of the "Friends" spinoff's second season and wished the first season's episodes had been as good.

Reilly also acknowledged he'd like to go back to a four-sitcom slate on Thursday nights, replacing Donald Trump's reality series, "The Apprentice," in the 9 p.m. hour. "I hope 'The Apprentice' is on for 15 years; it doesn't mean it's necessarily going to stay on Thursday night for 15 years."


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