The sudden departure of NBC President and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Lack today came as a surprise to almost no one in the TV industry.

More surprising was the news that NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker would add only Telemundo to his empire as a result of Lack's bow-out.

Rumors that Lack was history at NBC surfaced within months of his being named president in spring 2001. He took over from Bob Wright, who was promoted from NBC president to NBC chairman and vice chairman at parent company General Electric. But Wright had trouble letting go, informed sources say, and relations between the two men deteriorated quickly.

Lack now will become chairman and CEO of beleaguered Sony Music Entertainment, replacing Tommy Mottola, aka the former Mr. Mariah Carey, who was pushed out on Thursday. Lack will work under Sony Corp. of America Chairman Howard Stringer, his old crony from their days together at CBS News, where Lack worked from 1976 to 1993 before moving to NBC to head its news operation.

"There were some awkward moments with Bob," Lack told The Post today of his final days at the peacock network. "He wanted to spend more time at NBC and that created certain problems. I thought I'd have a little more running room than I did."

Today Wright sent out an internal memo saying that Lack's departure gives NBC "an opportunity to reevaluate our organization in order to maximize our strengths as we move forward" -- meaning that everyone reports to him again.

"As we do not anticipate filling Andy's position, the remainder of Andy's direct reports will report to me," Wright wrote.

That is, with the exception of Telemundo, which NBC purchased in October 2001. Telemundo has been handed over to the ambitious and internally well regarded Zucker. Telemundo President Jim McNamara, who had reported to Lack, will now report directly to Zucker, who will in turn report to Wright.

When word of Lack's new gig got out today, speculation swirled that Zucker would add NBC News to his pile of responsibilities, which also include NBC Entertainment and Bravo cable network. Not so, says NBC.

The Telemundo move is a no-brainer, Wright told staffers in the memo, given Zucker's experience in news -- he was executive producer of the "Today" show for a decade -- and entertainment. Plus, he speaks fluent Spanish.

Talking to PBS suits about the skanky infomercials with which the public broadcasting network's stations pollute the PBS brand during pledge drives is a lot like talking to parents of a crack-addicted teen.

It involves a lot of "what-can-we-do"-ing and talk about showing their children that there is a better way.

"The system is this national-local system," PBS chief Pat Mitchell told critics here today at Winter TV Press Tour 2003. "We provide something like 800 to 1,000 hours of programming a year to each and every one of our stations. They have a lot of other hours to fill and they generally, in most cases, fill it with locally produced programs about that community. If some are running infomercials (notice the 'if'), I just have to say, again, it's not something that we govern; it's not something that is a part of our purview."

She continued: "I have expressed concern about transactional programming, which some people would call 'infomercials.' I would call it anything that sells a product other than the service of public television, meaning our programming.

". . . relying on that often brings people into a membership situation to buy a product, not to support the programming on the station," Mitchell said. In other words, people become PBS members not because they support public broadcasting but to get the products offered as pledge bonuses.

Mitchell said PBS was trying to show member stations how they could reduce their overhead so they wouldn't be so addicted to the drug that is infomercials, and trying to find other ways to raise cash than pledge drives, during which the stench of infomercials is strongest.

Also during today's session, PBS executives declined to promise that "Masterpiece Theatre" would continue to broadcast even if PBS and WGBH do not come up with a new corporate sponsor by the time ExxonMobil pulls out in 18 months.

Each time they were asked to commit to the show's continuation, they declined.

PBS Senior Vice President Jacoba Atlas told critics that it would be a "more valid" question in 12 months because 18 months is "a really long time."

"If we're all there a year from now with the same story, we'll have a different answer for you then," she said, which was odd, because she didn't actually give an answer.

ExxonMobil announced last month that after 32 years as sole corporate underwriter, it would discontinue its funding of "Masterpiece Theatre" in 2004, saying it was shifting priorities to "focus its outreach" on the environment and public health. The company has shelled out more than $250 million over three decades to the PBS program.

"No other American company has ever had the opportunity to step up and say, 'Yes, we'd like to support great quality British drama,' " Mitchell said optimistically.

Jeff Zucker, left, president of NBC Entertainment, will add Telemundo to his domain with the departure of Andrew Lack, right, as the network's president and chief operating officer.