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A baptism by fire

About 10 months ago, Andrew Lack started his new job as president and chief operating officer at NBC. He has had a few challenges since then, not the least of which has been dealing with the worst television ad-sales environment in a decade.

Persuading Katie Couric to stay was a major item Lack was able to check off the to-do list (and would have been "my biggest disappointment" if she had decided not to stay, he says). So was getting through the latest negotiations to renew Friends, a must-have for the network's Thursday-night schedule next fall.

Coping with Sept. 11 as both a news story and a business challenge also kept Lack hopping this past year. So did the anthrax scare, working through the NBA talks (and ultimately passing on a renewal), preparing for the Salt Lake City Olympics and installing new executive producers at most of the important NBC News programs.

"If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't want to take this job in the worst year we've had in a decade," says Lack, who joined NBC as news division president in 1993 after a 16-year stint at CBS News. "On the other hand, it's really been a baptism by fire. I've been forced to understand a lot of really complex issues that affect our business in a marketplace like the one we're in."

Asked what he has learned since taking the new gig, Lack replies, "I learned that I've got some really smart colleagues," who helped him get up to speed quickly in areas that he wasn't too familiar with, including sales, technical operations and local stations.

Looking ahead, Lack sees NBC's greatest challenge as what it has always been: "Making great television programs day in and day out. If you don't have great programs, you don't have a great business. Just go back through the 75 years of NBC's history and in television starting with Meet the Press, Today, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and now with Jay and Conan. You just have to keep reinventing the wheel and make terrific programs with talented people. When you don't, that's when you have problems."

That's also true for prime time, of course, and Lack breathed a big sigh of relief when the Friends
deal got done. "We needed Friends
for next season, no question," he says. "We needed to give [NBC Entertainment President] Jeff [Zucker] another season to develop as the new kid on the block."

But he insists that NBC's prime time slate has depth, with Wednesday night, anchored by West Wing,
in almost as good a shape as Thursday.

Tuesday, he says, has the "linchpins for success" in Frasier, Scrubs
and Dateline. "The heart of the week, year after year, is still pretty darn good," he insists.

As for Zucker, Lack gives him an A for his freshman year in Hollywood: "He's had as good a first year out there as anyone." But he also says Zucker's "acid tests are in front of him and he knows that. I feel strongly that he's up to it."

Also on the to-do list is integrating Telemundo into the NBC operation. At $2.7 billion, the acquisition of the Spanish-language network is NBC's largest single transaction to date.

Lack expects that deal to close in the next 60 days or so. "It's occupying a good chunk of my time every day," he says, and its integration into NBC will be "my biggest task" leading up to the closing.

Although the Telemundo deal has angered Paxson Communications, which says it violates the terms of its network's alliance with NBC, Lack is hopeful the two will sort things out. "I believe it can be a very valuable asset," he says of Paxson, of which NBC owns a third with options to buy control over seven years.

In the future, he says, look for NBC to be a buyer, not a seller. "I think [GE Chairman] Jeff Immelt has made very clear to the analysts that he's a buyer. So I'm just taking my cue from the bosses, and I'm very excited about it. That's what everybody around here wants to hear."