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The Donald is NBC's new best friend

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
Published March 3, 2004

After years of searching and more than a few high-profile failures, NBC has finally found a replacement for the fresh-faced, highly rated gang at Friends:

Comb-over king Donald Trump.

At least that was the implication of a conference call interview Tuesday with NBC president Jeff Zucker. He enthused about the success of Trump's role in the reality series The Apprentice, suggesting it has stabilized Thursday ratings enough to soften the blow when the network's highest-rated comedy ends May 6.

"The Apprentice has been a huge game changer for us," Zucker said, gushing about NBC's expected victory in February's "sweeps" ratings period, which ends tonight. "We're going to lose Friends, but we're going to pick up 32 half-hours of The Apprentice."

Zucker's revelation came amid a flurry of conference calls by major-network TV heads who spun their sweeps performances.

Among the most coveted viewers, those ages 18 to 49, NBC scored highest, with Fox and CBS tied for second and ABC fourth. In total viewers and households, which aren't used to set ad rates, CBS came in first.

Executives took questions on the resurgence of reality TV (advertisers have accepted it), growing government criticism of extreme content (it's not affecting their plans) and the move toward year-round TV seasons (only CBS isn't accepting it).

"It only took 11 seconds," CBS president Les Moonves joked about the inevitable questions about Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl performance, which touched off a storm of protests about explicit TV content. "I was there. ... I felt like somebody punched me in the stomach."

Moonves also acknowledged that star Ray Romano and the executive producers of Monday hit Everybody Loves Raymond haven't agreed to continue the show next season, though they are considering a shortened season. Producers have written a season-ending episode that could cap the series this year.

Zucker blamed requests from local affiliates for some of NBC's recent time-shifting, including starting shows Sunday opposite ABC's telecast of the Oscars at six or seven minutes after the hour. That pushed local news' start past 11 p.m., allowing stations to exempt that night's ratings from their February viewership totals, he explained.

"It adds to the silliness of sweeps," said Zucker, echoing a old complaint about the ratings period, used by stations to set future advertising rates.

At Fox, entertainment president Gail Berman struggled to explain why exploitive reality shows such as My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee get better ratings than critically acclaimed comedies such as Arrested Development.

"We have an obligation to give the audience what it is interested in seeing," said Berman, who faced pointed questions on explicit content Thursday during an appearance before a congressional subcommittee. "Our obligation is to provide a balance."

At ABC, the atmosphere was decidely less energetic. Despite attracting 43.5-million viewers to its Oscarcast and some success in developing middling comedies such as Hope and Faith, the network placed last in February because it lacks a "sledgehammer" success such as American Idol or Friends.

"We need a hit; that's very clear," said Susan Lyne, entertainment president, sidestepping questions on whether the network's 8 percent drop in viewers 18 to 49 will affect Disney chairman Michael Eisner's efforts to avoid a corporate takeover by Comcast. (Disney owns ABC.)

Other notes:

- The two-hour Survivor All-Stars finale is May 9, live from Madison Square Garden in New York City and hosted by Jeff Probst. Also, Rob Lowe has agreed to star in a pilot for CBS called Dr. Vegas, playing the staff medic at a casino.

- ABC is preparing a show for next season that executives say would "share the same blood" as its legal hit The Practice; it's under development by Practice creator David E. Kelley.

[Last modified March 3, 2004, 01:45:07]

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