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NBC has a spin for everything

When the big boss straps on a flak jacket before hitting the stage, you know there's an interesting discussion coming.

But NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker had good reasons for donning Kevlar _ embossed with the network's logo _ at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. Even before he said a word, the music that played as he took the stage _ Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot _ signaled he knew he was in for a bumpy ride.

Among the network's problems: NBC's sitcom starring chef Emeril Lagasse, Emeril, is widely considered one of the worst new shows coming this fall, helped little by the addition of Robert Urich to the cast.

The network's reality shows, Weakest Link, Spy TV and Fear Factor, have taken heat as mean-spirited exploitation, even while handing NBC high summer ratings.

Four cast members on The West Wing are demanding more money. Rumors abound that Today show star Katie Couric and Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw may leave.

And a guest on Late Night With Conan O'Brien used a racial slur in a joke that aired July 11.

Zucker came out swinging. "I don't buy that we're known as the network of sleazy summer (reality TV) programming," said the former executive producer at Today. "Last summer you all wanted to know why we didn't come to the reality party. Now we've come and you don't like the gifts we brought.

"There is a younger audience, under the age of 35, that is telling us something about what they're looking for."

That explanation won't work for Emeril, which even some NBC executives didn't want to air until audience polling revealed the chef's popularity, fostered by the Food Network.

"When they came to me in the beginning, I wasn't convinced, either," said Lagasse, who compared the brickbats with the way the food world criticized him in his early cooking career. "But there's not a lot of people who have been given this opportunity. So I say, why not give it a shot?"

NBC also spun its West Wing problems, assuring critics that the conflicts over salary among actors Allison Janney (C.J.), Brad Whitford (Josh Lyman), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler) and John Spencer (Leo McGarry) wouldn't sink the show.

"The Fab Four, as I call them, are on the set, and they all seem happy," said Stockard Channing, who joins the West Wing full time as the president's wife this season. "It shouldn't be blown into something greater than it is."

Miami native Zucker also talked up several projects for mid season, including Tikiville, a half-hour comedy set in South Florida under development by Cheers director James Burrows and Dharma and Greg co-creator Dottie Zicklin.

"I based it on the Holiday Island Tiki Bar . . . where you stop by and have one rum runner and you're tanked," joked Zicklin, who also grew up in Miami (because of cost, NBC likely will film the show in California).

In other network news, a reality show developed by Late Night's O'Brien, Lost, will replace Ed on Wednesdays for six weeks beginning Sept. 5. Shelley Long and Bebe Neuwirth will reprise their roles as ex-wives on Frasier in an hourlong series premiere Sept. 18.

It was left to West Coast president Scott Sassa, who is Asian-American, to apologize about the Conan O'Brien flap, created by comic Sarah Silverman using a derogatory word for Asians.

"I think any racial slur is a bad thing," said Sassa, responding to a critic who noted that a network would never allow the "n-word" to be broadcast. "There was a mistake made . . . and the company edited it out of (reruns of) the show."

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