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Punch-Drunk as a Peacock

Maybe you've harbored a dream, deep within the recesses of your heart, of becoming the all-powerful, well-respected head of programming for a major TV network. You dream of the press conferences, the power lunches, the tense negotiations with talent that end with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld or George Clooney saying, "OK, OK -- we'll settle for a 5 percent pay hike plus points in the syndication package. But only because we like doing business with you."

But before you can linger on the image of wheeling into your primo parking spot at the network lot -- the covered space, right next to Regis -- you realize that such thoughts are pure folly. Networks don't just pluck programming chiefs out of thin air. They carefully cultivate them, forcing them to serve years-long apprenticeships nurturing sitcoms and dramas and cop shows -- they have to, right? Because if there's one thing the president of a TV network's entertainment division needs, it's years of experience developing shows and discerning talent.

Well, if you've ever dreamt of sidling up to Les Moonves at the next TV executives' get-together -- as an equal, mind you, and not as a deranged stalker -- but worry that your utter lack of experience as a programming executive would keep you on the outside looking in, take comfort in this. Jeff Zucker, NBC's newly hired entertainment division president, has just as much experience working with sitcoms and dramas as you do.

Not that Zucker wandered off the streets of Burbank and into a corner office at the Peacock Network. Zucker hails from NBC News. He's run the top-rated Today program since the early '90s. By all accounts, he did a good job there, if light news and interview segments and Al Roker are your thing. As for, um, fictional programming, Zucker sports a big goose egg on his resume.

Unless you count getting Matt Lauer and Katie Couric to pretend as if they like one another.

Of course, a background in programming really didn't help Zucker's predecessor. Garth Ancier came to NBC from The WB a little over 18 months ago with a reputation as something of a programming virtuoso. But he found the going a bit tougher when it came time to expand his oeuvre beyond shows about impossibly beautiful teens and their heartbreaking struggle to pair up with each other.

Of the new shows introduced by NBC this year -- really, the first fall lineup to bear Ancier's stamp -- only Ed, DAG and Cursed are still on the air. The latter show has undergone a name change; it's now The Weber Show -- sadly, not a program about barbecue sets and smokeless cookers, but rather, the same old laughless crap. Now that the name change is in place, perhaps NBC can move on to the next cosmetic change in The Weber Show's ongoing evolution... like making it funny.

Every other program to appear on NBC this fall during Ancier's watch -- Tucker, Deadline, Titans and The Michael Richards Show -- has since been removed from the schedule, their remains so charred you need dental records to identify them. The first three of those shows, in fact, took the gold, silver and bronze in this year's cancellation sweepstakes, giving NBC a mark of futility that makes it stand out even among the buck-toothed, open-mouthed breathers that make up network TV.

Even UPN laughs.

Ancier has no one to blame but himself. It was apparent as early as last May that The Michael Richards Show wasn't ready for prime time... maybe not even ready for public access cable at 3 a.m. But Ancier stuck with the show, even after two overhauls, several cast changes and a re-shot pilot episode failed to ratchet up the laughs.

Ancier also stuck his neck out for Titans, and I think we can all agree it doesn't take a lot of flow charts and bar graphs to convey where you'll wind up after decisions like that. Underlings tried convincing Ancier that Titans was bad -- not even "bad" in that "let's gather round the TV to mock this tongue-in-cheek offering from Aaron Spelling" sense, but rather "bad" as in "let's gather around the TV to kick in the screen." Ancier would have none of it, however, instead opting to schedule the reviled, idiotic Titans as the lead-in for the critically lauded, smartly written West Wing. Meanwhile, Ed -- another critically lauded, smartly written show -- was shunted off to Sunday nights to be pilloried by Fox's powerhouse lineup and CBS's inexplicably popular Touched by an Angel.

Later that night, Ancier went home and mixed bleach with ammonia.

Ancier's also the fellow who irritated the producers of Frasier by moving the show out of its cushy Thursday night spot and slapping it on Tuesdays where it was supposed to have the good manners to die quickly and quietly. Only one problem -- Frasier's ratings are up, and the producers are steamed, and CBS is waiting in the wings with a wheelbarrow full of money. NBC doesn't have the scratch to get into a bidding war with another network, not with the gross national product of most developing nations tied up to produce Friends and ER. So the likely scenario is that Frasier bolts at the end of the year, and NBC is left with two aging, expensive shows coasting on their past reputation as the network's only certifiable hits.

Of course, The Weber Show could always take off, what with that name change and all.

Worst of all from NBC's perspective, you can scour the Peacock's lineup and not find one reality show. At a time when CBS executives are rolling around Scrooge McDuck-like in the piles of money that Survivor and its offspring have generated for the network, the programming executive who misses out on the reality TV boat shouldn't be making any long-term plans.

Enter Zucker, whose entire raison d'être is reality programming. It's not like he has that extensive background developing Cheers spin-offs, after all. No, Zucker's strength lies in the reality genre. Today, morning news. Tomorrow, our very own Survivor knock-off.

And that, gentle viewers, is why this latest move by NBC means doom for every last one of us.

Network executives are known for two things: their natty taste in ties and their inability to come up with an original idea. If it grabs big ratings for the guy across the street, you can bet that by the end of the day the exact same show will be on every other channel -- save for a tweak here or there to keep the intellectual property lawyers at bay.

Remember what happened when America's love for Regis Philbin, easy money and easier trivia questions made Who Wants to Be a Millionaire a big hit? Within months, every network had a prime time game show of its own -- Greed, Winning Lines and, from the oldies but goodies file, NBC's Twenty-One.

Now reality programming is the flavor of the month. And so we get The Mole and Making the Band and a parade of other unscripted, just-let-the-cameras-roll shows that can be produced on the cheap. With a man who would have a hard time telling the difference between West Wing and Wings now helming NBC, expect the Peacock to be leading the reality charge.

The only trouble is that hot trends have a way of cooling off rather quickly. Those Millionaire knock-offs I mentioned a paragraph or two ago? All of them left the air in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, ABC's boneheaded decision to air Millionaire four nights a week cannibalized its audience and weakened interest in the show. It's easy to see the same thing happening to the reality trend as networks flood their schedules with the likes of Temptation Island, Popstars and Survivor II: The Wrath of Richard Hatch.

And that leaves NBC in a dicey position -- a network with a lineup of reality shows that no one wants to watch, a week's worth of Dateline episodes and a programming chief without the background or wherewithal to produce entertainment shows that excite or interest anybody.

Oh, and it also has the newly renamed Weber Show. That about says it all.


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