The 'Quality' Network Feels the Bite of Reality

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PASADENA— In the era of "Survivor," NBC does not have a voyeur-TV show. In the era of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" NBC does not have a game show. So what does NBC have to feel good about? NBC, the network's West Coast president Scott Sassa told TV writers at the annual press tour, has — harrumph — "quality." "Quality," quoth Sassa, "is the DNA of NBC."

Oh, Scott. Poor Scott. "Quality," coming from a network executive, only occasionally means "good shows" — remember, this is the network that gave us "Daddio." Rather, in the creepy doublespeak of the industry, it typically means "quality audiences," the kind of rich, young überyuppies NBC has cultivated for years. And now they're defecting to CBS's island adventure in droves.

So there's an unmistakably mournful note in the network's cheery, Peacock-colored presentations this year. Ah, fickle TV! In the '90s, NBC was the unbeatable envy of the business, led by "Seinfeld" and "ER" and "Friends." A scant year ago, NBC entertainment president Garth Ancier was the network's hip golden boy, brought in to adapt the youth-oriented programming magic he had wrought at the WB network. Today, the WB has fallen into sixth place with its once-hot teen lineup; NBC has seen ABC and staid old CBS ride the trends ahead of it; and Ancier and Sassa, squirmingly fielding questions at a Tuesday press conference in Pasadena, now seemed like Sid Caesar-era dinosaurs, what with their old-fashioned reliance on expensive made-up stories by writers.

As recently as its fall-schedule announcement in May, NBC seemed snootily proud that it had no reality plans. Now, post-"Survivor," Sassa was downright apologetic: "We were obsessed with having the highest-quality shows and the highest-quality audiences, and because of that we weren't as aggressive on [reality programming] as we could have been."

He has reason to be sorry; his corporate bosses are reportedly vocally disappointed at NBC's being stranded off the voyeur-TV island. In the day's introduction, "West Wing" star Allison Janney, in character as White House press secretary C. J. Cregg, announced, "This is the 23rd day in a row that Scott Sassa hasn't been fired." Admitted Sassa, "Reality programming is definitely here. It isn't a fad, it's a trend." (Leaflets, we assume, will be distributed later to explain the difference between the two.)

But while he and Ancier made vague promises to catch up on reality — oh, but in a "quality" manner! — they had no concrete announcements. So the network tried to play to its strengths, hosting a breakfast promoting the high-profile new time slot of "Will & Grace." And what did the TV press want to talk about, over their high-protein, low-carb plates of eggs and poultry sausage? "Survivor" and "Big Brother"! "W&G" star Debra Messing gave her bosses little help. "I'm obsessed with 'Survivor'!" she blurted. "Why would anyone want to get rid of Gretchen? She was the best!" Noting that "W&G" is filmed near the Studio City house of "Big Brother," its producers fantasized sneaking a note into the compound saying, "Your ratings suck!"

The houseguests might lob back a similar note regarding most of the network's new fall pilots, including some flatly awful comedies, a soap from quality-TV veteran Aaron Spelling ("Beverly Hills 90210"), starring Yasmine Bleeth, and a Michael Richards project so misbegotten the network scrapped it entirely to be reshot. Which leaves NBC facing a dreary fall, an uncertain midseason and — since Sassa said summer is the best time to launch "Survivor"-style reality shows — a long, long year to wait and catch the latest fad (sorry, trend).

There's a chance the network might rush a reality series sooner, though. NBC is considering "Chains of Love," a show from "Big Brother"'s producers in Holland, in which a woman is literally chained to five men and cuts them loose one by one. Ancier — who shepherded the imaginative romantic comedy "Felicity" at the WB — described it, entirely seriously, as a "relationship show."

A quality one, we're sure.