With ''Friends'' ending, how can NBC stay on top? The network's entertainment president, Jeff Zucker, is feeling the heat to develop replacements for its aging and departing hits

By Lynette Rice
May 16, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jeff Zucker Illustration by Drew Friedman

As you read this, NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker is prepping for network television’s annual dog and pony show for Madison Avenue. He wants more of its ad dollars (he secured a record $2.8 billion last year), so he’s prepared a strong pitch for his May 12 presentation: The Peacock is about to win its third consecutive season; it continues to deliver the most upscale viewer (average household income for ”West Wing” fans is north of $100,000); and NBC will debut buzzworthy new shows starring Alicia Silverstone, James Caan, and ”SNL”’s Tracy Morgan.

With any luck, he’ll also answer a question that’s occupied the minds of many who believe his meteoric rise has yet to peak: Is he, as NBC chairman/CEO Bob Wright once said, a programming genius — or, as his detractors argue, simply a genius at failing upward? Is it possible that without ever having developed a stand-alone hit (at least one that didn’t start with ”Law” and end with ”Order”), Zucker could rise to the helm of GE’s broadcast empire, leaving NBC ill-prepared for the future?

”This is the most important schedule NBC has set in the last 10 years, because we know for sure that ‘Friends’ won’t be with us the year after next and ‘Frasier’ won’t either,” says Zucker, who’s poised to begin his third full season on the job. ”So it’s no question we are about to enter an incredibly important year and what we decide to do will have huge ramifications.”

Tell us about it. He hasn’t found a replacement for ”Friends” or ”Frasier” and the nine-year-old ”ER” is fading fast. On Thursdays — the night NBC transformed with its Must See TV — CBS is nipping at the Peacock’s young-adult heels with its one-two-three punch of ”Survivor,” ”CSI,” and ”Without a Trace.” And Zucker’s Tuesday lineup is now propped up solely by ”Frasier,” which just happens to be down 21 percent in the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demo.

As the feisty former wunderkind who became, at only 26, executive producer of NBC’s cash cow ”Today,” Zucker kept the show on top for six years, earning a reputation as a master of stunts (”Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?”). In late 2000, he was promoted to oversee NBC’s entertainment division, where his proclivity for stunts (Madonna on ”Will & Grace”!) helped to goose ratings but did little to build a stronger schedule.

Sources say the creative team behind ”Frasier” often worried that such gimmicks undermined the show’s integrity, though Zucker doesn’t buy it. ”Quite frankly, ‘Frasier’ worked when we did stunt it,” he argues. ”I wished we’d done more of it.”

Zucker has also had trouble sustaining momentum for other NBC prime-time staples. He admits to ”screwing up” NBC’s Tuesday-night lineup because he couldn’t decide whether to run the seven-year-old ”Just Shoot Me” or the new Dennis Farina starrer ”In-Laws” at 8 p.m. Now both are no-shows for the fall due to low ratings.

And perhaps most alarming of all, Zucker hasn’t yet managed to develop any breakout comedies. Such sitcoms as ”Hidden Hills,” ”In-Laws,” ”A.U.S.A.,” ”Emeril,” and ”Inside Schwartz” all came and went without finding an audience.

That may change. ”NBC was much more focused in their development this year,” says United Talent Agency TV partner Jay Sures. ”The result has brought four to five shows to fruition reminiscent of NBC in its heyday.”

Zucker certainly likes his chances for fall: Family comedies starring Morgan as a blue-collar dad and John Larroquette as a would-be empty nester are generating serious heat, as are new dramas like ”Las Vegas” — starring Caan as a casino security guard — and ”Mismatched,” with Silverstone as a far-from-clueless lawyer/matchmaker.

And yet, he hasn’t lost faith in his current schedule. ”I think ‘Scrubs’ will be on long after I’m gone,” Zucker says calmly. ”’Criminal Intent’ will be on after I’m gone. So will ‘American Dreams.”’

Ah yes, when he goes. It’s widely believed that Zucker has begun shopping for his replacement because he’ll likely ascend the GE ladder, and he’s approached some of TV’s hottest execs this season (including Fox’s Gail Berman and FX’s Kevin Reilly). Zucker is coy on the subject: ”We’re always looking for great talent.”

As for the new schedule he’ll unveil, many still share the view voiced by one network honcho: ”When ‘Cheers’ went away, NBC was down in the dumps, then it exploded with ‘ER’ and ‘Friends.’ Jeff is a really smart guy. It’s in the DNA over there. I would not write him off.”