And the Seinfeld Replacement Is … Just Shoot Me, Most Likely

Now that NBC’s agony over Jerry Seinfeld’s early retirement is subsiding, its executives have moved on to the next stage in post- Seinfeld syndrome.

They’re trying to replace Jerry.

The Observer has learned that the front-runner to take over the crucial 9 P.M. Thursday time slot is Just Shoot Me , which, like its probable predecessor, is a smart urban comedy that, once upon a time, the network honchos did their best to torture and maim, as only network honchos can.

NBC is about to pull out all the stops and promote the sitcom within an inch of its life, ordering the Just Shoot Me writers to create as many as four special promos to air during NBC’s Super Bowl broadcast on Sunday, Jan. 25, when at least 130 million viewers-45 percent of American TV households-are expected to tune in. That’s a big day for NBC, a day so big that the network is, for the first time, putting Jay Leno’s Tonight Show on a Sunday night. The Super Bowl spots are coveted as they are pricy, with AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Tommy Hilfiger and Pepsico willing to shell out the $1.3 million on average for a half-minute advertisement.

And it’s the night that NBC is giving Just Shoot Me its coming-out party. No other NBC show is going to be so coddled-the promos will be broadcast during the pre-game show, the Super Bowl itself, the post-game wrap-up and Third Rock From the Sun , which will air directly afterward.

Once the decision was made, as one executive said, to “put some oomph” into Just Shoot Me during Super Bowl XXXII, the White House almost put the kibosh on it. Presently, Just Shoot Me airs at 9:30 P.M. Tuesdays, a slot that after Super Sunday was to be pre-empted by President Clinton’s State of the Union address. So that week, NBC will move the sitcom to a Thursday time slot, before or after Seinfeld for maximum exposure.

Also, at NBC’s midseason press tour on Jan. 17, Just Shoot Me will be one of only two non-rookie shows to participate in a full event. Nevertheless, NBC is still planning on keeping things close to the vest. After all, what’s the point of being a network bigwig if you can’t make secret decisions and splashy announcements that can turn around fortunes overnight, like the Super Lotto of network TV? NBC executives are beginning to talk up Just Shoot Me as smart enough, mature enough and in really good shape to lead into the huge ER audience.

“I hear that we have a good shot at taking over the Seinfeld slot,” said one source at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, whose Brillstein-Grey Communications owns the show, along with Universal and ABC’s parent, the Walt Disney Company. Just Shoot Me ‘s creator and executive producer, Steve Levitan, said he hasn’t heard anything official, but he is making Hollywood-style rim-shot jokes about the move: “It’s not really Seinfeld ‘s time slot we want,” he said, “it’s their office space. They have a really big fountain.”

Industry speculation about Seinfeld ‘s successor has centered primarily around Frasier , Third Rock From the Sun , Veronica’s Closet and Seinfeld character spinoffs. But all of those shows are booby-trapped. Frasier is holding its own against ABC’s Home Improvement , and NBC is loath to move it. Plus, the sitcom’s studio, Paramount Studios, could make unreasonable demands, like insisting that if Frasier is moved to Thursday, then Nathan Lane’s new Paramount-owned sitcom must get the protected 9:30 P.M. slot no matter what.

Third Rock is believed too weird, and Veronica’s Closet too femme to reproduce Seinfeld ‘s huge ratings, though the latter sitcom has the advantage of being the brainchild of both Bright-Kauffman-Crane Productions ( Friends ) and Warner Brothers Television ( ER ), two production entities that have been the beneficiaries of considerable buttering up by NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. (NBC made an incredibly cushy deal with the pair whereby Bright-Kauffman-Crane is to come up with another sitcom without any Warner Brothers deficit financing. In the TV industry, it’s being referred to as the ER bribe.)

As for a Seinfeld character spinoff, still to be determined, it looks increasingly remote that one would be ready by next fall. Echoing the private thoughts of many Hollywood TV agents and executives, Jason Alexander (he plays “George Costanza” on the Seinfeld television series) told a Los Angeles radio station recently that any spinoffs are “a couple of years” off because of the ubiquitousness of Seinfeld ‘s syndication “where we appear 17 times a day as our characters.… I don’t really think the four of us have spinoff potential,” he added.

Still, a TV Guide poll conducted soon after the Seinfeld news broke showed that the show’s fans most want to see Michael Richards’ character, “Cosmo Kramer,” in a spinoff. But the most likely character to make it to the small screen first is “Elaine Benes,” played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The actress’ husband, sitcom producer-writer Brad Hall, has a huge overall production deal with Big Ticket Television, a subsidiary of Spelling Entertainment Group, as well as a major commitment with CBS to create, produce and supervise three shows.

NBC’s Thursday-night problem becomes bigger if ER goes up for grabs. The network begins its exclusive monthlong negotiating period with Warner Brothers on Feb. 1, but already both Fox and CBS have said they await with cash, which is why NBC would like to settle on Seinfeld ‘s successor. That the front-runner is not just a dark horse, but one whose potential Mr. Littlefield and his senior vice president for program planning and scheduling, Preston Beckman, didn’t see at first, has generated even more flop sweat in the halls of NBC.

The two senior executives have been acknowledging their shortsightedness in not seeing the importance of Just Shoot Me . “They didn’t quite get the show, and they don’t try to hide behind that fact now and claim, ‘Hey, we believed in it all along,’” said one source. “Now, they say, ‘Look, we didn’t know what we had.’”

Set inside a glossy New York magazine that’s Cosmopolitan meets Condé Nast, Just Shoot Me stars Laura San Giacomo, George Segal and David Spade and snappish writing about fashion, journalism, models, sex and silicone.

Two NBC vice presidents, Karey Burke and Steve McPherson, reportedly fought for the sitcom. But Mr. Littlefield and Mr. Beckman were less than thrilled with it. As with Seinfeld , Just Shoot Me was first rejected, then ordered, by NBC. Seinfeld ‘s initial pickup was the smallest in network history-just four shows; Just Shoot Me ‘s initial pickup was six. Seinfeld ‘s ensemble cast was deemed too Jewish by then NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff; Just Shoot Me ‘s ensemble was deemed too ugly-when Mr. Littlefield saw the finished show, he was reportedly horrified that the hot vixen of Sex, Lies and Videotape , having recently given birth, had become a little dumpy. Meanwhile, Don Ohlmeyer, NBC’s West Coast president, asked the writers to add some male eye candy.

At the time, Mr. Littlefield was just starting his string of sitcoms created around sexy female celebrities, whose talent was as slight as their waistlines. Indeed, his favorite pilot that season was Suddenly Susan , starring Brooke Shields. (That it was also a Warner Brothers show didn’t hurt, either.)

Just Shoot Me was suddenly in competition with Suddenly Susan for the Thursday 9:30 P.M. time slot. “What does NBC do?” said one insider. “They pick up Suddenly Susan , fire the executive producers, put new show-runners on it and completely change it.” Then, according to informed sources, NBC proceeded to rip off the Just Shoot Me pilot to beef up Suddenly Susan , which was suddenly (like Just Shoot Me ) based on a hip magazine, suddenly had a randy photographer, was Suddenly Shoot Me . “I know for a fact they stole jokes,” disclosed one insider.

Mr. Levitan had expected better treatment. The veteran writer and producer got his start on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show , moved to Wings and Frasier and established himself as a player on NBC’s farm team. According to a source, when NBC asked Mr. Levitan for favors-for example, writing jokes for Men Behaving Badly , which was down in the ratings-he obliged.

When Just Shoot Me finally premiered on March 5, 1997, it barely had a sporting chance. First, it was the last in a long line of mediacentric sitcoms. Then, it was given a Wednesday 9:30 P.M. time slot-NBC’s equivalent of dead air. But NBC hadn’t counted on critics liking it. Ms. San Giacomo, who had slimmed down over the summer, began wearing miniskirts. The show was awarded the 9:30 P.M. Tuesday slot after Frasier , where it managed to hold onto 97 percent of the audience, more than that among 18-to-49-year-olds. Woody Allen did a voice-over. And people began to watch. Soon, Just Shoot Me had knocked off its only direct competitor, ABC’s Hiller and Diller , which was doted on by Jamie Tarses, the embattled president of ABC Entertainment. NBC began leaving the show alone.

The decision on Seinfeld ‘s successor may all come down to economics. NBC, despite repeated denials, continues to promote its own in-house productions over those from other studios-the lackluster NBC Studios sitcom Working is the only show besides Just Shoot Me receiving a Super Bowl spotlight. By contrast, Just Shoot Me is a mongrel. Its owner, Brillstein-Grey Communications, is in turn partly owned by Universal Studios Inc. and partly financed by ABC. Which means parent companies Seagram Company Ltd. and Disney have equal 30 percent shares in the show, according to informed sources, and suddenly feel they’ve got a good investment in Just Shoot Me .

All stand to make piles of money if Just Shoot Me becomes another Seinfeld -unless Warner Brothers demands the Thursday 9 P.M. time slot as a condition for renewing ER .