Nbc's Real Fear Factor

Coming to a small screen near you: "Kingpin," a gritty, riveting drama about a Latin American drug cartel run by the kind of murderers who mail the severed head of a drug agent to his colleagues back at the office. Send the kids to bed--is HBO on? Actually, no. "Kingpin" probably will air on NBC in prime time this winter, and is apt to generate controversy. Bring it on, says NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker. "That'll only make everyone want to tune in to see what the fuss is all about,'' he said during a recent interview at his West Coast office.

If Susan Lyne has the toughest job in Hollywood in trying to revive ABC, Zucker arguably has the second toughest--making sure he extends NBC's long winning streak in prime time. The two executives have plenty in common, too. Both are former journalists (Zucker produced the "Today" show for years); neither had experience in programming or scheduling prime-time series before getting the nod, and both have to break some rules and invent some new ones to succeed.

Zucker's most fearful task is finding a replacement for the network's megahit "Friends," which will end its nine-year run on NBC after one more season. The most popular show on TV today, the sitcom has been key to NBC's long dominance on Thursday nights, the richest night of the week for the industry because movie studios, among others, splurge on ads while viewers are making weekend plans. "For the first time, I do feel a great deal of pressure," Zucker said. He adds: "I just want one each, the next big comedy and drama. I have modest goals."

Zucker hopes those next big hits will emerge from the lineup that he'll roll out at the splashy "upfronts'' in New York this week, when all the networks announce their fall shows. Among the comedies in NBC's new lineup: "Good Morning, Miami," about a young TV producer who tries to revamp the lowest-rated morning show in the country (and yes, others have noticed that the pitch for that series must have sounded like blatant pandering to Zucker). Another that made the cut is "Hidden Hills," which follows the high jinks of two suburban couples. Zucker is also big on a period drama, "American Dreams," about a family bracing for cultural turbulence in the early 1960s.

Network programming is all about fingertips, and having a feel for what Americans want to watch. Zucker knew how to get attention at the "Today" show with tricks like televising live pop acts in Rockefeller Plaza on Friday mornings. And he turned heads in Hollywood shortly after he arrived by trying new things, such as scheduling 40-minute versions of "Friends." With brute marketing strength, he briefly forced "The Weakest Link'' into everyday conversation. Industry executives say part of the reason for the show's popularity was Zucker's strategy to make the show's host, Anne Robinson, the star of the show, rather than the game itself. And "Fear Factor'' has been a surprising hit despite widespread thinking that viewers would prefer more-calming fare after 9-11. Perhaps Zucker's most notable stunt was to schedule a short "Fear Factor" special featuring Playboy Playmates during halftime of the recent Super Bowl, a blatant ploy to draw viewers away from Fox, which was televising the game.

But what a network needs for long-term success is hit comedies. Zucker says he thrives on the pressure to find them. "I want the ball on fourth down," he says. Careful not to drop it.