Here's a television riddle: How does an NBC executive say 'I love you'? Easy: ''I'm giving you a Thursday-night time slot.'' And if the buzz is right, the latest object of NBC's affections just may be Téa Leoni, whose onetime ABC sitcom The Naked Truth will debut on the Peacock network in January.
Of course, scheduling the show as a midseason replacement on the hottest TV night of the week may be more than just a mash note to Leoni. While NBC's Thursday-night Must See TV lineup has been untouchable in the ratings for the past two years, the juggernaut has weakened this fall. Pack leader Friends has been off by as much as 15 percent compared with last season's numbers. And Brooke Shields' much-hyped Suddenly Susan, though a bona fide hit, is not mastering the domain of the Seinfeld audience: Nearly 25 percent of the 18- to 49-year-old male viewers who watch surrounding shows Seinfeld and ER are tuning Susan out.
Clearly NBC is itching to jump-start Thursday night, and the network is confident Leoni could provide the spark. ''She's gorgeous and terribly funny, sophisticated and yet quirky,'' says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ''You just enjoy watching the contrasts that exist within her.'' One projected lineup moves Truth into Susan's cushy 9:30 slot, with Susan taking over The Single Guy's 8:30 time, and the critically maligned Guy (consistently the lowest-rated show of the block) shifting to another night. (According to one NBC source, the network is considering moving Guy to Wednesday at 8:30, a slot currently occupied by The John Larroquette Show, which will likely be canceled if it doesn't pleasantly surprise the suits during the November sweeps.)
''It's certainly a scenario,'' admits Littlefield. ''The Naked Truth will either be Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, but every night is up for grabs until we see the first few episodes.''
Wherever it lands, Naked will now bear the unmistakable urban-hip stamp well known to fans of Rachel and Ross, and Jerry and Elaine. Where ABC's Truth was about an intrepid yet klutzy photographer at a trashy tabloid, NBC has morphed Leoni's character, Nora, into a klutzy writer at a slick entertainment magazine called Comet. ''It was suggested that a pink elephant walking into a circus was not as funny as a pink elephant walking into a tea party,'' says Leoni. Adding to the brew, the show has hired a fresh crop of writers, including several from The Larry Sanders Show, after the ABC team which included Leoni's live-in boyfriend, executive producer Chris Thompson was almost entirely dumped. (Though a Truth spokesperson denies it, Thompson's relationship with Leoni reportedly led to the breakup of his marriage. He and Leoni have since parted ways.) Topping off the team is a new costar, former Cheers drinking buddy George Wendt, as the mag's crabby publisher.
In terms of visibility, Leoni, 30, is not a bad catch. Her role as the sultry but spastic social worker in the recent Flirting With Disaster induced DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg to sign her to star in the romantic comedy Why Can't I Be Audrey Hepburn? Although the project was later put into turnaround, Leoni has become one of Hollywood's more talked-about up-and-comers. And her profile will only increase if she finds a berth on Thursdays. Of course if the show fails, NBC will feel the heat. But, says David Marans, media analyst at ad agency J. Walter Thompson, ''They still have those three anchors [Friends, Seinfeld, ER] that can always serve as fertile testing ground.''