September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

TRIMMING THE FAT As couch potatoes get ready to veg in front of the tube for the new season, net execs are worried that they may have a lot of extra TV-watching time on their hands now that the industry is being gripped by a downsizing craze.

At NBC, employees are being told to think twice before using their cell phones and to book cheapo plane fares. CBS cut its party budget for its summer press tour and is looking to trim 200-300 jobs. ABC is also scrutinizing its staff with an eye to layoffs. And all the nets are trying to own as much programming as possible to keep costs down.

You didn’t think that NBC’s renewing ER for $13 million an episode and CBS’ spending $500 million annually to get football back would come without casualties, did you? CBS Corp. president and COO Mel Karmazin bet Wall Street analysts that the Eye would turn a profit in the coming year, and few think that can be done without layoffs. Consequently, every department — especially the news division — is getting the once-over. Fortunately, the exit of high-priced shows like Cybill and Murphy Brown means costs are already down. Eye insiders insist that the NFL contract is not to blame for the austerity (they point out that the sports department is in fact staffing up), but that seems about as likely as the Saints’ winning the Super Bowl.

”With programming costs rising and the audiences declining, if you’re going to make it, you have to take some costs out,” says media analyst Tom Wolzien of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Panic pervaded the Peacock when employees recently had to detail their job descriptions. An NBC exec says the net is simply tracking costs so it can remain the only profitable network and that no layoffs are planned. So, for NBC staffers, Working is more than just the title of a sitcom — for now.

CUTTING REMARKS When Friends makes its syndication debut, the first episode will sport seven minutes of never-before-seen footage, including a song performed by Phoebe. The one-hour special debuts Sept. 21, 1998, and no, the cast didn’t hold out for extra money to release the unseen material.

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