Is this merely admitting a mistake? Or is it appeasing a superstar producer? Or were there other forces at work behind the scenes?

Daily Variety reports that NBC Universal TV Group president Jeff Zucker told reporters on a conference call that his network had "made a mistake" by pulling The Restaurant from NBC's Monday-night schedule during May sweeps, which end tonight. Zucker's comments, which Variety dubbed "a rare moment of candor for a network executive," reflect the fact that the ratings for the shows NBC aired as replacements, reruns of Crossing Jordan and Law and Order, performed even worse in the ratings than the first three episodes of The Restaurant, and reality shows usually build audience toward the finish.

Said Zucker, "We made too quick of a decision on that. Under some pressure from stations that were not pleased with the lead-in [for local news] Monday at 10, I buckled. I regret that I didn't keep The Restaurant on in that time period." While the remaining shows will air, they have been exiled to Saturday night -- traditionally a reality TV graveyard.

We find ourselves more than a little perplexed by both Zucker's actions and his comments. In particular, we note that the show's ratings were significantly below NBC's Average Joe series and a little more than 10% below the prior season's average of 7.8 million viewers. The premiere drew just 6.8 million viewers; the second show rebounded to 7.4 million, a gain of 10% from the premiere; but, after a one-week preemption, the third show dropped back to 6.7 million, which led to NBC's action.

From an after-the-fact view, cancelling The Restaurant was clearly a mistake. However, if Zucker believed that the show had potential for significantly better ratings, it wouldn't be buried on Saturday nights in its return -- or exiled to NBC's Bravo network for a full re-airing of the series, which was originally supposed to be on NBC. So why the rare public mea culpa?

We can only think of two possible reasons: (1) Zucker wants to make nice to "superproducer" Mark Burnett or (2) "affiliate pressure" wasn't the determining factor that ultimately led NBC to pull The Restaurant in the first place, and so the apology is directed to the affiliates.

Factors supporting theory #1 -- making nice to Burnett -- include NBC's dependence in 2004-05 upon The Apprentice (which ended 2003-04 as the #5 show in terms of total viewers, despite spending most of the year running against CBS's #2 CSI) and The Contender (which will take on Fox's #1 American Idol in the winter and spring). Burnett has six shows that will air during the "traditional" TV season, and NBC may want to make sure that its shows get the same attention that Burnett gives to his first hit, CBS's Survivor --- but nearly every single media article written about Burnett recently has discussed the "flop" of The Restaurant's second season, detracting from his image.

Factors supporting #2 -- that "affiliate pressure" wasn't the driving factor -- include the fact that both series star Rocco DiSpiriro and his business partner, millionaire felon Jeffrey Chodorow, come off very poorly in the show. The Miami Herald described Chodorow thusly: "ham-handed, arrogant and boorish." Meanwhile, the L.A. Daily News quotes the senior VP of creative affairs for Reveille Productions, one of the co-producers of The Restaurant, as saying, "We thought [the second season] was going to be a continuation of Rocco being the charismatic, talented restaurateur that he is -- more of Rocco's trials and tribulations. We are not pleased with the way Rocco ended up being portrayed -- unfairly for the sake of dramatic television."

We find this statement from a co-producer of the show to be unprecedented and stunning -- especially when you consider that Mark Burnett's second season of The Restaurant has received quite good reviews, including one from the Associated Press and one from a fellow chef in the L.A. Daily News article that the first season of The Restaurant seemed staged and not that realistic. but "the second season -- this one looks like a real restaurant all of a sudden.''

These two facts lead us to wonder whether NBC, in a desire to maintain good relations with the charismatic Rocco (who has made several talk-show appearances on the network but, in the words of his fellow chef, "doesn't look nice, smart or crafty on [The Restaurant's] second season") and the litigious Chodorow, decided that continuing to promote the show during a sweeps period might create more trouble down the road for NBC than it was worth.

Meanwhile, while the return of the show will allow focus to shift back to the legal wrangling between Rocco and Chodorow, the heart of the show will continue to be Rocco's 78-year-old mother, Nicolina, who worked at Rocco's on 22nd during the entire battle, making meatballs and sauces while her son and his partner were lobbing verbal and legal hand grenades at each other. The Miami Herald features an interview with Mama DiSpirito in which she says that she started Rocco in cooking when he was just a toddler: "That's a very beautiful thing to do for your kids -- to teach them how to cook."

Based on the first three episodes of The Restaurant and the story lines for the remaining three shows, we think Mama should also have taught Rocco how to negotiate as well as how to cook ... especially since press reports state that Rocco's on 22nd may close before the final episode of the series airs, with Chodorow triumphantly opening a new restaurant in the space shortly thereafter.