It's really, really hard to understand speed-talker Chris Matthews at 8:30 in the morning, though we can report with absolute certainty that everything he said today at Summer TV Press Tour 2004 seemed bright and snappy and extremely entertaining.

After the "Hardball" host had talked about this and that for about 20 minutes without appearing to stop for breath, a critic finally got in the first question, asking whether he thought the political conventions were more or less important this year in particular, and whether he thought the networks' planned coverage was adequate.

"Well-look-I-think-it's-not-going-to-be-the-old-days-of-arguing-whether-the-guy-from-Cayuga-County-is-going-to-help-or-hurt-or-cut-the-ticket-that-year -- trim the guy," Matthews responded. "Those-days-of-Germond-type-coverage-was-great-I-think-today-it's-about-people-want-to-see-these-people.-Let's-face-it-there's-a-third-of-the-country-to-half-the-country-that-can't-wait-to-hear-Bill-Clinton-come-back-and-put-on-one-of-his-rousers-Monday-night.-They-just-want-to-see-him-on-the-tube -- Elvis is back. They-may-have-bought-the-book.-They're-damn-well-not-going-to-read-it.-They-used-to-say-of-books -- once you put it down you can't pick it up. But-they-are-going-to-watch-him-on-television-because-he-is-great-on-TV-and-next-they're-going-to-get-sort-of-the-old-the-nostalgia-of-the-Kennedy-era-with-Teddy-with-his-last-hurrah.-That-may-not-be-as-exciting-as-that-but-it's-going-to-be-great-TV.-Then-you're-going-to-have-the-new-kid-on-the-block-John-Edwards-showing-his-stuff-Wednesday.-Then-of-course-we-get-to-see-if-John-Kerry-can-meet-the-standard.

"Hell of a week.

"And-I've-got-to-believe-they're-going-to-do-some-diversity-there-so-it's-going-to-be-great.-They're-going-to-have-to-have-somebody-else-talking-besides-those-four-guys -- Hillary will be up there -- it's-the-show.-It's-more-important-to-see-these-people-on-television-than-anything-else-in-this-convention.


"You didn't exactly answer the question," the critic responded.

How he could tell, I don't know.

The Josiah Bartlet administration is coming to an end at the close of the upcoming television season -- only three years into his second term, NBC suits report. But they insist that does not necessarily mean "The West Wing" will be canceled. Thus continues the slow, painful uraveling of the once-great White House drama series.

" 'West Wing' was ratings-challenged" last season, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly told critics over the weekend, stating the obvious.

"John Wells is not in denial about it," he said of the man best known for executive-producing "ER," who took over "The West Wing" when its creator, Aaron Sorkin, was shown the door.

"I can't reveal too much; all I can tell you is it's not going to be business as usual," Reilly continued. "The one little thing I could say is that the Bartlet administration is clearly coming to the end of its term, and I think that's going to foster some really interesting developments. . . . So we're going to try to juice up that show creatively this year, and I'm excited about what I've heard."

"Juicing up" is not an expression "West Wing" fans want to hear in connection with the series. When you hear "juicing up" and "John Wells" in the same breath, crashing helicopters and tank attacks cannot be far behind.

On the other hand, Peter Roth, the man who runs Warner Bros. TV, which produces "The West Wing," yesterday told The TV Column it was too early to say whether the Bartlet administration would come to an end this coming TV season. And yet Reilly seemed pretty certain of what he was saying to a room full of critics and columnists here. But then Reilly is a guy who's capable of telling a room full of critics and columnists that the "Friends" spinoff "Joey" gave him "this magical feeling that happens only one in a great while," that he "feeds off the energy" of his boss, NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker, and that a drama series in which Heather Locklear runs LAX "will have credibility." Can you ever really trust a man who's capable of saying such things with a straight face?

Zucker also acknowledged that the Bartlet administration would pack it in at the end of this season. On the other hand, Zucker last season promised that "Coupling" would be the most talked-about show of the season, and he now says he knew "Coupling" was garbage from the time its pilot was shot.

"We knew we were in trouble when we saw the first taping of 'Coupling,' quite frankly," Zucker said over the weekend. "I mean, we did. And it just wasn't working.

"And you know, at that point you say, 'Well then, why did you put it on?' " Zucker said, anticipating the next question. "I think that comes under the heading of, you know, you never know for sure, and sometimes miracles do happen. And that would have required a miracle."

One sharp critic wondered how, given Zucker's new position on "Coupling," anyone could believe him when he raved about this season's crop of new shows. The following is his response:

"We have five new shows and . . . I always try to be candid with you. And, you know, I would say of these five, I think these are better than we've had in a long time. Ultimately it's the viewers that will decide. It won't be us, and it won't even be this room. It will be the viewers that decide. And they're the final arbiter. And you know, you have to make your own decisions and see what you think of these five new shows, and you're not going to like every one of them. You know, that's understandable. I think these are good shows, and I'm actually proud of what Kevin and the entire team has done. And -- but I understand the skepticism that you might bring to some of that."

Utterly breathtaking: Chris Matthews had plenty to say on convention coverage.Martin Sheen may not be looking presidential much longer. NBC officials say the Bartlet administration will come to an end this season on the "The West Wing," though they expect the Emmy-winning drama to live on.