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Zucker Vows to End Pilot Waste

It may be business as usual in Hollywood in the wake of the 100-day writers' strike. But NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker reiterated his commitment to turn the strike into an opportunity to streamline a costly pilot system that is rife with waste.

"Hollywood is a town based on inertia," he said. "There are a lot of mansions built in that town on the same old system."

Zucker's comments came during a question-and-answer session at Harvard Business School's Entertainment and Media conference in Boston.

The company's recent announcement about a scaled-back pilot season and a 52-week schedule was ridiculed by rival network executives as spin from the lagging network. Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman, for one, pointed out that his network has been programming on a year-round model for quite some time.

Zucker said the 52-week schedule and the decision to forgo NBC's annual upfront presentation at Radio City Music Hall was the result of "honest conversations" with advertisers.

"We're going to present a schedule that is much more realistic and honest," he said, adding that the announcement was a "little misunderstood" by NBC's rivals.

Advertisers have advocated for a real picture of network schedules during the upfront selling season. And as reruns have become less viable in a fragmented media universe, the schedules the networks unveil during upfront week in May have come to bear little resemblance to what is actually on-air come November.

Advertisers have also questioned the usefulness of the elaborate upfront presentations and after-parties.

"What we decided," Zucker said, "was to finally take them up on what they've been telling us for many years."

Zucker also stressed the network's commitment to Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who is due to hand over the reins of the program to Conan O'Brien in 2009.

"We'd love for Jay to be with us forever," he said, "and obviously, we'll have those conversations with him [about a new show] and time will tell."

Several rival networks including Fox and ABC, as well as studio Sony, have quietly expressed interest in making a home for Leno, whose ratings have continued to surge even during the strike when he went on sans writers. Leno continued to beat rival David Letterman, who was able to mount his show with his Writers Guild of America staff thanks to a side deal with the union.