The most-talked-about time slot at this year's fall TV preview in Los Angeles isn't even in prime time. Or during the week.
It's Saturdaaaaay niiiight.
Faced with mass yawning from viewers and a new round of "Saturday Night Dead" columns from critics, NBC execs are scrambling to reinvent the 20-year-old "Saturday Night Live" -- again.
Executive producer Lorne Michaels has already handed pink slips to almost everyone in the 15-member cast (only Mark McKinney and Norm MacDonald will return for sure). The show will also get a new writing staff, starting with Steve Higgins, who wrote for the brief but hip "The Jon Stewart Show."
Cast members will be expected to make "SNL" a priority, said NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer. "We pay full-time salaries. So if you want to make a movie, do it when the show's on hiatus," he said.
Despite all of NBC's promises to improve, the frisky Fox network smells blood.
It will launch its own Saturday-night sketch-comedy show this fall. "Mad TV," co-produced by Quincy Jones, won't be live. But it will start at 11 p.m., giving it a 35-minute head start on "SNL."
The hourlong Fox comedy will include cartoons drawn from Mad magazine -- hence, the show's title. But the edgiest bits in a 30-minute preview tape shown to critics were parodies of movies and TV commercials.
"Gump Fiction" deposited Forrest Gump into the plot of "Pulp Fiction." Instead of shaking hands with President Kennedy, hit man Gump joined Lee Harvey Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
The show's producers, including veterans from Fox's "In Living Color," were also astute in hiring a diverse seven-member cast -- three women, three blacks. "SNL" has been criticized for underusing its female and black cast members.
Fox execs tried last week to low-ball ratings expectations, saying they'd be happy for "Mad TV" to coexist with the TV show that revolutionized American comedy. But they and their NBC counterparts know "SNL" could be vulnerable if NBC's latest moves don't work.
"We felt the time was extraordinarily right to go into that time period with a very aggressive push," said Fox Entertainment President John Mataoin.