NBC execs think they've found a way around the "no-compete clause" in Lou Dobbs's exit settlement with CNN--feature him on NBC News programs as a guest.

Dobbs, who gained a following as president of CNNfn and anchor of the cable network's nightly "Moneyline" business report, has signed a deal with NBC as a partner in the production of a syndicated radio show to be hosted by Dobbs. They'll also publish a monthly financial newsletter.

And naturally, as part of promoting the newsletter and radio show, "it is expected that Mr. Dobbs will be interviewed as an occasional guest on NBC News programs" as well as in other media outlets, NBC said yesterday.

Asked to define "occasional," an NBC rep said, "There really is no set definition."

NBC was upfront about its plans to have Dobbs anchor a regular TV program on one of its networks "when his non-compete agreement with CNN expires."

CNN has never confirmed that Dobbs signed a no-compete clause when he left that network in June. But such a clause is typical when on-air talent wants off a network while still under contract. Typically, the talent agrees not to work on-air for a competing network--in Dobbs's case for three years, sources say.

But for now, NBC thinks it can skirt the clause by having Dobbs appear on NBC and its cable financial news outlet, CNBC, as a guest--promoting his newsletter and radio program.

NBC wasted no time testing its theory. Dobbs appeared on NBC's "Today" show yesterday in what amounted to little more than a plug for the new relationship. Asked by host Matt Lauer, "Are we okay here?" because of the no-compete clause, Dobbs replied, "Of course we are."

Called for comment yesterday, a CNN rep said: "We have a contractual agreement with Lou Dobbs, and we expect he will live up to it."

Dobbs exited CNN after clashing repeatedly with network execs in Atlanta, especially CNN/USA President Rick Kaplan. Shortly before leaving, Dobbs went public with the feud on a telecast of "Moneyline." He had cut away from a speech by President Clinton in Littleton, Colo., to resume "Moneyline," but soon tersely told viewers that "CNN President Rick Kaplan wants us to return to Littleton."

Dobbs also became chairman of an Internet site called Space.com, in which he has a substantial equity stake, and when he left CNN he said he could not stay at the Time Warner operation once he "moved from a passive investor in Space.com to wanting to do something more."

"I am thrilled to be working with one of the world's premier brands and media organizations," Dobbs said yesterday in NBC's announcement.

Since Dobbs left "Moneyline," it has lost about 36,000 viewers, averaging 334,000 in September. During Dobbs's last 3 1/2 months on the show, it lost about 200,000 viewers, falling from April's average of 570,000 viewers.

Chris Matthews will become a more frequent political contributor to "Today" and has signed on as a fill-in host on the morning program's weekend edition as part of a new five-year deal with NBC News.

In addition to his increased presence on the broadcast network, the pact calls for Matthews to continue hosting CNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," which may become MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews" under the deal. Nothing definite was announced yesterday, but sources say the move will likely happen next year.

CNBC plans to replace "Hardball" with an "In Profile" biography show hosted by Bob Costas--because there just aren't enough bio programs on television these days. That show was supposed to debut in August but is still waiting in the wings for a slot on the schedule.

Matthews launched "Hardball" in 1997, when it nearly doubled the time slot's household delivery. Last year CNBC expanded the gabfest from 30 minutes to an hour, airing from 8 to 9 p.m. ET; the network added a second "Hardball" telecast at 11 p.m. ET to get it into prime time on the West Coast.

Under the new deal, Matthews also will develop programming for MSNBC and contribute to the news networks' coverage of the 2000 elections.

The former speechwriter for President Carter and top aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill also has been Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner and a nationally syndicated columnist since 1987.

That non-cast member playing an NBC suit in the "And a Pizza Place" sketch on the season debut of "Saturday Night Live" last weekend actually was an NBC suit. It was late-night and specials Senior Vice President Rick Ludwin.

It was Ludwin's first time on the show. The sketch comedy program doesn't often feature network executives on the air, a notable exception being NBC programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff's guest-host gig in the '80s.

Ludwin is a friend of Jerry Seinfeld, guest host of "SNL" last weekend. He developed Seinfeld's prime-time sitcom and was a big champion of the show in its early days, when the ratings weren't great and other NBC suits pronounced the series too New York. Some say that Ludwin is the reason that NBC kept the show on its prime-time schedule, where it eventually became the most watched comedy series in history.

In "And a Pizza Place," a bunch of NBC programming execs decide to produce a prime-time sitcom by that name because ABC has exorcised the "And a Pizza Place" from its sitcom "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place"--this season called just "Two Guys and a Girl." When ricotta cheese is added to the cast and the new show's ratings go up, the NBC suits move on to their next big job: writing Jay Leno's monologue. Ludwin was the guy who delivered the last line: "Leno--genius!"

In addition to championing Seinfeld, Ludwin lobbied hard for Leno back when NBC was deciding whether the stand-up comic or longtime NBC late-night host David Letterman would replace Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

CAPTION: Despite his no-compete agreement, former CNN host Lou Dobbs is showing up as a "guest" on NBC.