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One for the spin cycle

What's the definition of spin?

Shrugging off the departure next year of West Wing actor Rob Lowe, who will leave NBC's hit political drama in the spring over a pay dispute?

Pretending that the upcoming final season of Friends and the continual weakening of ER won't threaten one of the most lucrative nights of TV programming ever?

Expressing surprise over the nationwide headlines that erupted when the anchor of the country's top network TV newscast announced his intention to retire in 2004?

When it comes to the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, no subject is too obvious for stars, network TV executives or producers to try spinning into harmlessness _ and NBC's presentations to TV writers Tuesday and Wednesday offered lots of opportunities.

"(Lowe) is staying for virtually this entire season," said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, noting that the actor is expected to appear in 16 of 22 West Wing episodes in the 2002-03 season. "The fact is, he's stayed longer than most people in the real White House."

The rift over pay emerged as Lowe asked for a substantial pay increase. Lowe was paid more than other cast members at the show's start, but did not seek a pay raise last year when four other West Wing actors briefly stopped work to get salary hikes.

Though co-star Martin Sheen recently earned a pay hike to $300,000 per episode, NBC sources say Lowe was not asking for equal pay. Warner Bros. Studios couldn't strike an agreement with the actor _ who was hired as the show's most recognizable face, but was quickly overshadowed by Sheen's President Bartlet _ and both agreed Tuesday night to part company.

The news of Lowe's departure helped spice an already eventful press tour for NBC, which found executives reluctant to say with certainty that its hit comedy Friends would end after next season, though every actor in the cast has said they expect the series to conclude in May 2003.

Producer David Crane wouldn't even guess at the odds of a Frasier-style spinoff series after the show's hourlong finale. (Critics here are betting Matt LeBlanc's Joey Tribbiani would have the best chance.) He did say fans shouldn't expect a cavalcade of past guest stars shoehorned into the finale or too much emphasis on the baby recently delivered by Jennifer Aniston's Rachel Green.

"Yes, everyone mentions Frasier and we can all also find a million (spinoff) examples that didn't work," Crane said. "It really comes down to coming up with a wonderful, wonderful idea and . . . right now, we're not even thinking about it."

On Tuesday, NBC made headlines by announcing it was developing a movie on the life of Martha Stewart. Though no lead actor has been cast (the New York Post suggested Glenn Close and Robin Williams, among others), Zucker assured journalists the movie would address the recent controversies over her stock sales.

Some negative buzz also surfaced over the network's new comedy Good Morning Miami, a sitcom focused on the producer of a morning TV show hailed as the worst in the country. Critics groused that Zucker had okayed a mediocre series based on his life _ he once produced a troubled morning show in Miami _ and questioned whether the thick accent of the show's only Hispanic character was too close to a demeaning stereotype.

"I have a lot of friends that are like my character _ mostly relatives," said Miami native Tessie Santiago, who plays Good Morning Miami's dimwitted anchor Lucia Rojas-Miller, but speaks without a hint of accent offscreen. "I'm Latina, and my responsibility to the Latin community will always come up. But I read the script and it seemed funny to me. . . . I offered to use (the accent), to add color to the character."

Friends star Matthew Perry visited critics to introduce NBC chairman and CEO Bob Wright, announcing, "I would like you all to give me a round of applause as I have not crashed my car in over 15 months. I might be on the West Wing next year. I'll keep my fingers crossed."

And after announcing a day filled with Sept. 11 anniversary programming _ including a three-hour live town hall meeting and a two-hour Concert for America _ NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw marveled over the nationwide fuss that erupted when he declared his intent to step aside in 2004 (for anchor Brian Williams) a few months ago.

"I thought I was saying I was staying for two more years, but all I read (in newspapers) was that I'm leaving," Brokaw said. "I was frankly stunned . . . because there are Americans out there with real things to worry about. They don't have to worry about some younger white guy and some older white guy getting paid more than the minimum wage because they got their contracts renewed."

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