PASADENA, Calif. -- When "Will & Grace" premiered two years ago, there was much wringing of hands over whether a sitcom with a gay lead character would be accepted in prime time. Now that the show has won NBC's coveted 9 p.m. Thursday time slot, its gay themes aren't even an issue.
"We've accomplished what we tried to do, which was to make the show mainstream," said director James Burrows. Creator David Kohan said even the "little old lady in Kansas" seems to like the show.
"We're almost to that point where people identify with the [Will] character," Kohan said, "that his sexual proclivity is secondary to the fact they want him to have an emotional involvement."
Nowadays, interest in the series has more to do with story lines: Will Will and Grace move in together again? Yes. Will Grace continue to date Will's boss, played by Gregory Hines? For a few more episodes, at least. Will Grace's mom, played by Debbie Reynolds, return? "She's coming back," said creator Max Mutchnick, "and she's marrying Eddie Fisher again." He's kidding.
The move to Thursday nights is a big step for the series, not only because "Will & Grace" inherits the time slot of "Frasier," "Seinfeld" and "Cheers," but also because the show will air opposite "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
"They're very similar shows," joked Sean Hayes, who plays Jack. "I'm concerned about people differentiating the two."
Debra Messing, who plays Grace, said she thinks the sitcom will do well facing off against Regis.
"The younger shows have fared better against 'Millionaire' because their viewership skews older," she said. She added that the time slot is far more intimidating than the competition. "It's sort of monolithic in its history. It's a spot that's very prestigious and precious. We just want to do right by everybody."
Last night, NBC aired a "Will & Grace" marathon, six episodes of the series picked on NBC's Web site as favorites by fans. The sitcom has been used to plug holes all over NBC's schedule, especially during sweeps months, which causes Mutchnick some concern about overexposure.
"There seems to be success in repeating the thing, and they only have six 'Daddios' and they have to put something on there," Mutchnick said, causing Messing to hide her face as she laughed at his mention of NBC's lame family sitcom.
If last night's marathon veered toward too much exposure for "Will & Grace," the cast and crew have no such concerns about tomorrow's Emmy award announcements, where the more exposure, the better. Last year the show got snubbed.
"We're optimistic," Burrows said.
When they're not dreaming of Emmys, the "Will & Grace" creators spend their days planning sabotage. The "Will & Grace" crew make their home on the same studio lot where CBS's "Big Brother" house was built. Mutchnick promised no "Survivor" jokes on "Will & Grace" this fall ("You've been voted out of the apartment, argh!"), but Kohan is trying to figure out how to "shoot one of those parachute men into the 'Big Brother' compound."
"We'd attach a note," Mutchnick said. "It would say, 'Your ratings suck, Love, the 'Will and Grace' staff.' "
NBC PLAYS CATCH UP: Plenty of rumors have circulated in the media-obsessed media that NBC top dog Bob Wright is unhappy with NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa because he failed to foresee the interest in "Survivor" and come up with his own reality show.
NBC poked fun at the scuttlebutt on the first day of its press tour by having Allison Janney appear as her "West Wing" character, White House press secretary C.J. Cregg. She announced, "Today is the 23rd day in a row Scott Sassa has not been fired."
Then "Will & Grace" star Megan Mullally, who plays Karen Walker, started posing questions.
"It's lunch time on the East Coast, do you think Scott Sassa will be fired anytime this afternoon?" Mullally asked. "Is it possible while we're talking right now Scotty is getting canned?"
Mullally then asked that "Survivor" or "Big Brother" or "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" be placed on the schedule as a lead-in to "Will & Grace," only to be told none of those programs air on NBC.
"Honey, is there no reality programming on this network at all?" Mullally squawked. "Well somebody's going to get ... fired over this, don't you think?"
It's all fun and games until the network executives speak.
Sassa and NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier said reality programming is not just a fad, but a trend. Then Sassa tried to claim NBC started this trend years ago with "Dateline NBC," calling it, "one of the first reality shows that was out there." That must come as a shock to the people who work on "Dateline," who think of their show as a newsmagazine. Then again, it would be fun to see Stone Phillips eat a rat.
Sassa said NBC will develop reality programs for the future, perhaps as late as next summer, but they won't be added "in lieu of the dramas and comedies you expect from us. We have not taken anything off the schedule to accommodate these."
One series NBC is considering, "Chains of Love," features a woman who picks four guys from resumes submitted by 100 men. She's then chained to the guys and casts them off one by one.
"It's a relationship show," Ancier said, prompting howls of laughter from reporters before he added, "That wasn't supposed to be funny."
NBC touts itself as the network with "the quality shows," and reality programming doesn't seem to fit the network profile, which Sassa acknowledged. Still. ...
"When I worked for Ted Turner, he told me, 'Even the most religious people only go to church two or three days a week.' We cannot ignore the public's interest in different kinds of reality shows."
TIME SLOT SHUFFLE/CAST CHANGES: When NBC announced its fall schedule in May, the network had the new comedy "Tucker" at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and "3rd Rock From the Sun" at 8:30 p.m. Monday. Yesterday the network announced those two shows have traded places.
"Tucker," a "Malcolm in the Middle" rip-off, fits better with "Daddio," the Monday 8 p.m. show, for an hour of family comedy.
Tim Meadows and William Devane have been added to the cast of the overhauled "Michael Richards Show."
Ingo Rademacher from "General Hospital" joins the Aaron Spelling soap "Titans" as a night club manager.
And Shelley Morrison's Rosario becomes a series regular on "Will & Grace."
"PRETENDER" ALERT: After the cancellation of "Pretender," Ancier said NBC tried to make a deal to produce a TV movie that would answer questions left by the show's May cliffhanger. Ancier said one of the Turner networks, most likely TBS, beat NBC's offer by agreeing to produce a series of "Pretender" TV movies.
DOWN THE ROAD: The Marine drama "Semper Fi" is still a go for a midseason start on NBC, Ancier said, once they find a person willing to commit to overseeing the series.
An Americanized version of the BBC drama "This Life" is also planned.
NBC has ordered a pilot for next fall from Drew Carey and producer Bruce Helford that will combine scripted elements with improvisation. Carey will make a guest appearance in the pilot. If the show is picked up as a series, it will air live on the East Coast. Ancier said the show was inspired by a live episode of "The Drew Carey Show."
"STAR" STAR?: Rumors of casting in "Star Wars Episode 2" continue to swirl, and Gabriel Byrne did nothing to quash speculation that he may be up for a part.
"They're discussing it, yeah," Byrne said, adding he didn't know what character he's being considered for. "It's the kind of thing where you see what they come up with."
Byrne stars in ABC's new Friday night sitcom "Madigan Men."
Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour through July 25.