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Which network am I working at today?

The critics' press tour often gets a little weird toward the end. For instance, a couple of years ago, the star of one show got drunk on the next to last night and threw himself naked into the swimming pool, which might not count as weird if it were Charlie Sheen, but this guy was from PBS. So, as we stagger into the final week, I guess shouldn't have been surprised that Sunday morning's questions to Fox programming executives seemed mostly to be about NBC shows like Friday Night Lights.

Tv_us_fox_cagr103 That's because Fox's new chief programmer, Kevin Reilly, worked at NBC until he was fired a few weeks ago. Well, NBC says he wasn't fired, they just paid him several million dollars to quit showing up at the office. Reilly managed to keep a straight face when a critic asked him about that Sunday. "No one's really ever fired in Hollywood, are they?" he mused. "And no show is ever really canceled...

"You can pick whatever trade euphemism you want. I segued. I thought about it over the holidays. I want to explore other opportunities. I want to spend more time with my family, which I did, for three days."

After helping to build FX from an unknown and virtually unwatched channel of reruns into a basic-cable powerhouse on the strength of shows like The Shield and Nip/Tuck, Reilly jumped to NBC in 2003, just as the network's aging schedule was about to implode. The programs that had kept NBC in the top spot all those years were either departing (Friends and Frasier) or slowing down with advanced cases of creative arthritis (E.R.). And nothing new was in the pipeline. Reilly's arrival wound up coinciding with NBC's tumble from first to fourth in the Nielsen ratings.

Reilly brought plenty of quality replacements to the air, from 30 Rock to Friday Night Lights to Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, but unfortunately they arrived without viewers. In an oddly timed moved last month after Reilly had just finished putting together NBC's new fall schedule, the network dumped him. Before he could even file for unemployment, Fox (whose entertainment chairman Peter Liguori worked with Reilly at FX) scooped him up. Now he's in the peculiar position of trying to destroy the NBC schedule he created, while boosting a Fox schedule he had nothing do with.

Reilly's deep familiarity with NBC's fall schedule, and the fact that he had literally nothing to do with Fox's, led to an avalanche of questions about the network he used to work for. Reilly patiently answered them all, without either getting too waspish about NBC or making it too obvious how sick of the whole subject he must be. "You're going to make Kevin spend more time on the couch with these kind of questions,'' Liguori joked. "Just picking at that scab, aren't you?"

Only a couple of times did Reilly indirectly suggest that he found NBC a frustrating experience. One came when a critic, asking about the differences in corporate cultures at the two networks, noted that Fox has a quicker trigger finger on new shows that start slowly in the ratings, while NBC was famous for nurturing such late bloomers as Hill Street Blues and Seinfeld into eventual hits.

"There is a history of great shows that started at the bottom that worked to the top" at NBC, Reilly agreed wistfully. "I personally had wished that that history was a little bit more fresh in people's minds and was a little bit more wired into the current environment." A reasonable translation might be, NBC's unaccustomed spot at the bottom of the heap has kept it a perpetual state of panic the past four years.

Another telling moment: Asked what he liked about Fox, Reilly called it "a restless company...an entrepreneurial company...You never rest on your laurels at Fox." Unspoken was the obvious: That was precisely what NBC did before Reilly's arrival, with network boss Jeff Zucker putting an enormous amount of time, effort and creativity into dragging the reluctant cast of Friends back its last couple of seasons, and much less breeding a stable of replacements.

But Reilly stayed away from that kind of talk. He even confessed to a lingering fondness for the shows he helped develop for this fall's NBC lineup. "I love the talent involved in those shows,'' he said. "I would like the best for them." Corrected his pal and boss Ligouri: "I want them all to be bloody failures."


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