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Also Bans Motley Crue From Further Live Network Appearances

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LOS ANGELES ( -- In wide-ranging remarks at the Television Critics Association conference here, NBC executives were philosophical about their ratings fall and also said the rock group Motley Crue has been banned from the network.
Photo: AP
Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal Television Group president, said the ratings war among the networks has 'never been so close.'

Speaking at the semiannual event on Jan. 21, Kevin Reilly, NBC's entertainment president, said the network's ratings fall had been tougher than expected but stopped short of quantifying what that diminished position would mean in the advertising sales marketplace known as the "upfront" in May.

"It's healthy to be knocked out of your comfort zone sometimes," he said. "We can't predict when we'll be No. 1 again."

Lags in 18-49 demo
The network has had a strong start to the second half of the season, with Monday drama Medium jumping out of the ratings gate, and The Apprentice just beginning its new run. It lags behind CBS, however, in the all-important 18-to-49 viewer age group. CBS has pulled in a 4.0 season average rating in that demographic, while NBC scored 3.7, ABC 3.6 and Fox 2.5.

With prime-time sports coverage included, the networks are even closer together. CBS scored a 4.0 season average in 18-49 demographic, while ABC leaped into second place with 3.9, NBC had 3.7 and Fox 3.4.

"It's never been so close," said Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal Television Group president. "There's never been so much parity."

Fox's 'American Idol'
The network expected to slip in the ratings after losing its Thursday night hit Friends, but "we know we have work to do," Mr. Zucker said. He pointed out that NBC launched eight new shows in the fall and five are doing well, which is better than the average success rate for new programming. It did take a hit this week, however, from Fox's returning powerhouse, American Idol.

Answering reporters' questions about the resignation of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, Mr. Zucker said he sees the change as an opportunity to refocus on some key issues such as conversion to digital technology, protection of digital content and indecency.

Photo: AP
Motley Crue has been banned from NBC as a result of Vice Neil's expletive on 'The Tonight Show.'

"We hope that things will be looked at with a new eye, one that will bring some common sense and uniformity to the crucial issues," Mr. Zucker said. "There have to be new conversations."

Motley Crue banned
On a related broadcast decency matter, he said that future live airings of The Tonight Show would carry a five-second delay because of an expletive from Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil that slipped into the New Year's Eve show. As a result, "Motley Crue will not be back on NBC," Mr. Zucker said.

Other points covered by the NBC chiefs were:

  • Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has been signed for two more seasons of The Apprentice, but they didn't say if Mr. Trump would continue to be part of the show after that. Since Mr. Trump is an executive producer, he could continue in that capacity if he decides not to star anymore, they said.

  • Martha Stewart. The executives would not talk about Ms. Stewart's impending return to TV, other than to say NBC's syndication arm, along with uber-producer Mark Burnett, will create the syndicated hour-long show. There has been much speculation about Ms. Stewart in prime-time TV.

  • Talent Deals. NBC announced a few talent deals at the conference, including a deal with Saturday Night Live's creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels, that will keep the show on the air at least until 2012. The network also will take steps to keep Today Show anchor Katie Couric in the fold, Mr. Zucker said, in case CBS News tries to snag her as a replacement for Dan Rather.

  • Obsolete Sweeps. Mr. Zucker said the sweeps periods, particularly February, are becoming obsolete with the continued introduction of local people meters, a new audience measurement tool. But the network continues to schedule event programming and stunts during those weeks.

  • Upcoming Shows. NBC's upcoming shows include: the fourth installment in the Law & Order franchise, called Law & Order: Trial by Jury; an American makeover of the British hit The Office; and The Contender, an unscripted show set in the boxing world. A miniseries called Hercules, from veteran award-winning producer Robert Halmi Sr., launches during May sweeps.

  • Summer Programming. Summer programming, where repeats and reality shows take over much of the airwaves, will include another run of The Biggest Loser, in which contestants struggle to lose weight; I Want to Be a Hilton, starring hotel heiress Paris Hilton's mom Kathy Hilton; and Tommy Lee Goes to College.
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