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Press tour snack bar (Day 9)


Beamers: NBC entertainment prez Kevin Reilly, Today's Matt Lauer.

By ED BARK
PASADENA, Calif. -- FLYING COLORS -- Re-embracing quality has made NBC feel wanted again, says entertainment president Kevin Reilly.

"I do think we brought the love back this year to the network," he says, citing critically acclaimed series such as The Office, My Name Is Earl, Heroes, Friday Night Lights, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock.

The first three already have been renewed for next season, along with Law & Order: SVU. But the others still represent uphill battles in the Nielsen ratings despite the Peacock's best promotional efforts. The onetime network of Fear Factor won't retrench, though, Reilly pledges.

"Going back to the NBC playbook" makes it paramount to "stick with quality," he says. "It's paid off for us historically. When you get under fire it's very hard to walk the walk. But God bless The Office," which now is close to being prime-time's No. 1 comedy among advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds.

Reilly is particularly pumped about NBC's newly infused Thursday night comedy block, which also includes Scrubs.

"They speak to who we are . . . This was a year that could have easily collapsed for us on Thursday. You could be on a slippery slope to hell on this night. And the fact is we have not done that."

Heroes, the season's biggest freshman hit, returns Monday (Jan. 22) with a "pod" of six new episodes. It also will face tougher competition from Fox's newly installed 24 and, later this season, ABC's transplanted Dancing with the Stars performance show.

"We're not going to blink on that. We're not going to move that show or run," Reilly says.

SPECIAL NEEDS CASE -- Friday Night Lights still is being tackled for little gain in the ratings despite a heavy promotional campaign tied to the tagline "It's About Life."

"We have a marketing and an image issue with that show," Reilly says in a separate interview. "It's a soap but it's not as frothy as soaps usually are. It's a family show but it's as soft as family shows usually are. It's about football but it's not about football. The viewers who see it love that complexity. But it's clearly confusing a lot of people. And it's not getting enough women (viewers)."

The show's new time slot, Wednedays at 7 p.m. central, does a disservice to Lights, which likely will be moved again, Reilly says. But cost isn't an issue, despite the on-location shooting in Austin.

Heavily fortified with a cast of young newcomers, "it's actually one of our moderate dramas from a cost perspective," Reilly says. "And the advertisers love it."

JAY WALKING? -- NBC's announced plan to have Conan O'Brien replace Jay Leno in 2009 is still on track, says Reilly. But the Peacock worries that the jut-jawed workaholic may bolt to a rival network after leaving Tonight behind.

"I'd hate to see that," Reilly says. "Jay is still the reigning champion. We've already started talking to him about ways to keep him around. He's a creature of habit and likes to do a specific thing. He's not really that interested in doing some newfangled version of the show. But he has been a company guy and a team player for a long time. So I hope we can find the right arrangement."

Still, late night isn't the profit center it used to be, Reilly says. The network's Today, which will expand to four hours next September, is the Rajah of Revenues. Tonight is in the black, but not entirely in the pink anymore.

"I can guarantee you that our competitors, if not losing money, are feeling a huge pinch" in late night, he says. "So that's going to weigh in. I don't think it's as simple as, 'Jay has an audience, so let's grab him'."

O'Brien later says he'll go where NBC tells him, which means relocating from New York to Burbank when Leno's day is done. The heir to Tonight's throne also is co-producing Andy Barker, P.I., starring his former sidekick, Andy Richter, as an accountant turned inept detective. The comedy will get a test slot on Thursday nights later this season.

JOY TO THEIR WORLD -- Today co-host Matt Lauer, recently feted for his 10th anniversary with the show, suggests a headline for Wednesday's session with TV critics.

"Today show team boringly happy," is his version of recent events, which included the departure of Katie Couric and the arrival of Meredith Vieira.

"You've seen other transitions," he says. "They don't always go well, and we're not faking this one."

Vieira, who left ABC's The View, initially is more concerned about going ape earlier in the day.

"I need to apologize at this point because I can't get over the fact that I kissed a monkey this morning on the show, and I initiated it. And quite frankly, I can't stop thinking about it."

Lauer and Vieira are joined by weatherman Al Roker and Today news anchor Ann Curry, who likely will be working overtime when Today's expansion plan hits home. Lauer usually signs off after 9 a.m. and Vieira is contractually prohibited from working past that hour because she might find herself competing in some markets against Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which is produced by Buena Vista.

"For most of my childhood my dad drove a New York City bus for eight to 10 hours a day . . . I mean, there are people who really work hard, and this is not that," Roker says.

Stations owned by NBC, including KXAS-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth, will have no choice but to carry the extra Today hour from 10 to 11 a.m. NBC News president Steve Capus says he antcipates initial clearances in about 50 percent of the country. The Peacock's owned-and-operated stations currently cover 23 percent of that territory.

RETURN SERVE -- Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly lately is slamming NBC News. Capus says it's smallish of him.

"I think it's really kind of sad and pathetic, some of the things he's been lobbing at us these days," Capus says. "I don't quite understand it."

O'Reilly has an ongoing feud with MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann, who regularly includes him in Countdown's
"Worst Person in the World" segments. But he "keeps trying to draw NBC News into it," Capus says. "The more he does it, the more success we have, so he can do it anytime he wants as far as I'm concerned. I think the audience knows exactly what's at play here."


Meet the Trumps: Big Daddy, daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr.

ROSIE OUTLOOK -- Donald Trump again laid into Rosie O'Donnell at Wednesday's session on The Apprentice. Not that he had much choice. Ask him a question and he'll answer it. Not that he doesn't enjoy calling her a "slob" anew.

"She's a bully," Trump says of O'Donnell's making fun of him on The View. "When you're attacked by a bully, you hit the bully hard right between the eyes. Hard and fast. And that's what I did."

"The Donald" says his image has been enhanced by the feud, which began when he announced he would give hard-drinking Miss USA Tara Conner a second chance to redeem herself. Trump owns both the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which are televised on NBC.

"The reason that this feud became so big is that I was so unpolitically correct," Trump says. "I said it like it is and I think people liked that, and that's why it kept going . . . It will die when people stop asking that question."

For a change of pace, unclebarky.com tries to include the Trump children, both of whom are participating in the new edition of The Apprentice. What do they think of O'Donnell? Here's how it went:

Ivanka Trump: "I think everyone has said all that there is to possibly say about Rosie O'Donnell, so . . . "

Donald: "That's the best answer."

Donald Trump Jr.: "I think ultimately we're always going to defend our father no matter what he does. That's what family is about. That's the way we were brought up. And you know, in our eyes he can do no wrong, and I think he handled himself perfectly. But let's leave it at that."

Ivanka Trump: "And with that said, we're not going to give a good 'sound bite'."

Dad predicts a meltdown on The View after a recent surge in popularity.

"I feel badly for me," he says. "The ratings went up because of me . . . But let me tell you what's going to happen. In two weeks you people won't be asking this question anymore, and the ratings on The View will tank. Barbara Walters hates Rosie O'Donnell. There will be turmoil, and it will go back to where it was.

"I watched it the other day for the first time in a long time. And I've been on The View many times, unfortunately. In fact, Barbara Walters chose me last year as one of her 10 most whatever-the-hell people . . . Watch that show without all the turmoil. It's a very boring show. Is that a nice answer?"

He then winks at unclebarky.com. Donald Trump may be a big boor at times. But boring he's not.