THE BIZ: Zucker tries to fill NBC tough spot

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When Jeff Zucker stood before advertisers at NBC's upfront fandango last May-his first as president of NBC Entertainment-he gushed about his solution to the network's weakest link: the 8:30-9 p.m. timeslot on must-see Thursdays. He offered up the comedy "Inside Schwartz."

For years, NBC executives have failed to place a hit in what had come to be known as "walk the dog time," but Mr. Zucker was confident the show about an aspiring sportscaster and his romantic adventures would score. Now, at midseason, "Schwartz" is gone and the network's 8:30 problem persists.

For Mr. Zucker, the former legendary producer of "Today," a solution remains critical to his legacy as he starts his second year in his new job. "If I do nothing else, that would probably be the most important thing," he says. "We haven't been able to do it in eight years." That was when "Friends" launched in 1994. And so now comes Mr. Zucker's second shot: a new comedy, "Leap of Faith," about a woman who leaves an ostensibly perfect relationship and finds comfort in her 30-something friends.

Surprisingly, NBC opted not to place another new midseason comedy starring ex-"Seinfeld" actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the spot. Instead, starting Feb. 26, "Watching Ellie" will replace "Three Sisters," at least temporarily, on Tuesdays at 8:30. There it will follow "Frasier" repeats. "Given all the attention that's going to be attendant to her return to television, we didn't want to add the pressure of also having to go on Thursday nights," Mr. Zucker says. "To the degree that we can lower the attention just a little, I think it would be better."

Watching "ELLIE"

Time reported that Ms. Louis-Dreyfus and her husband and show developer Brad Hall asked for the lower-profile Tuesday slot. Still, Mr. Zucker says if the launch proves successful, he won't hesitate to switch it to Thursday.

After ex-"Seinfeld"ers Michael Richards and Jason Alexander bombed with their follow-up shows, NBC is hedging its bets; it ordered just six episodes of "Ellie." The show follows the life and loves of a cocktail lounge singer, and could generate excitement from a promo push during the February Olympics on NBC.

Vince Manze, co-president of the network's in-house promotional arm The NBC Agency, says ads will feature Ms. Louis-Dreyfus commenting on Olympic events. "We feel the Olympics are important for these two shows. There are a lot of females watching," Mr. Manze says.

Opinions differ on why NBC has struggled to find a hit on Thursdays at 8:30, but no doubt finding one is more important than it was before CBS placed "Survivor" in the 8-9 p.m. slot last year. "Friends," due in part to a viewer craving for comfort food and comfort shows in the wake of Sept. 11, continues to be a strong draw from 8 to 8:30, but many viewers switch over for the final half of the popular "Survivor Africa."

Nielsen ratings show "Friends" posted a 14.6 rating this fall (23.6 million viewers), while "Survivor" had a 10.3 from 8-8:30 (17.8 million viewers). "Inside Schwartz" posted a 9.8 rating (15.1 million viewers), compared to an 11.9 for the last half-hour of "Survivor" (20.7 million). NBC's principal problems in the 8:30 Thursday slot are an inability to hold on to more than 80% of the "Friends" audience. "Schwartz," which Mr. Zucker says maintained about 68%, did about as well as the litany of other shows in that slot. That is a missed opportunity for advertisers and NBC.

"It's probably more of a turnoff for NBC than it is for the buyer because we're still getting a good number," says Andy Donchin, director-national broadcast at Carat USA, New York. "NBC's losing this great potential to have a blockbuster show with a blockbuster number and take advantage of a great lead-in."

And while Mr. Zucker continues his 8:30 hit search, he's got one more little worry: He must reach a deal with the cast of "Friends," whose contract is up at the end of this season.

-David Goetzl and Wayne Friedman

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