Zucker and Sassa face reality flack

Encountering an eager press corps Thursday at the Television Critics Association meetings in Los Angeles, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker and NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa were immediately put on the defensive by the 200-plus critics who have been just that - critical of the network's highly-rated batch of summer reality shows.

The two executives also said they are still attempting to develop reality series Destination Space with Survivor producer Mark Burnett and Sassa says he's still "enjoying" his job.

Sassa and Zucker, who wore a bullet-proof vest in jest, were peppered with questions on Fear Factor, Spy TV and Weakest Link. Asked whether they were proud of their reality efforts, Zucker responded, "What we are proud of is that we have kept the lights on this summer and as a business model as we go forward, that's an incredibly important proposition." Zucker added, "Last summer, there was a lot of heat on us for not developing in this genre, you all wanted to know why we didn't come to the party. Now you don't like the gifts that we've brought."

As expected, NBC has ordered an additional 13 episodes of both Fear Factor and Spy TV for the regular season.

As for Sassa, whose contract with NBC is up at the end of the year, he said, "I really don't want to discuss any contractual negotiations, whether it be mine or anybody elses, but I will tell you these last six or seven months have been great working with Jeff and the team." Zucker backed Sassa, saying, "I hope Scott stays here as long as he wants because its been a great working relationship for me."

On the Destination Space (formerly Destination MIR) frontier, Sassa says they are sending a group of development executives to Russia in the next month or so and that Dennis Tito has really paved the way for the show. Destination Space will pit a dozen or so contestants competing for opportunity to go into space. The show was expected to air during the 2001-2002 season, but NBC executives won't talk about possible airdates.

The network announced a number of stars joining NBC series this fall in either regular or recurring roles, including Woody Harrelson returning for five more episodes of Will & Grace and Ving Rhames in a recurring role on new drama UC: Undercover. - Joe Schlosser