By Steve Gorman
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - The new executives running NBC said on Monday they would bring Donald Trump's reality show "The Apprentice" back from near extinction for at least one more run -- this time with celebrities playing for charity.
And in yet another twist to efforts to revive the low-rated "Apprentice" franchise -- and NBC's own sagging fortunes -- they said Trump was inviting his archfoe, actress-comic Rosie O'Donnell, to join the cast of the show's latest edition.
O'Donnell's spokeswoman immediately dismissed the idea.
It was one of several moves announced by newly installed NBC programming chief, Ben Silverman and his partner, Marc Graboff, in a bid to generate some buzz for the beleaguered network less than two months into their tenure as co-chairmen of NBC Entertainment.
NBC, a unit of General Electric Co.-controlled NBC Universal, has been struggling to reverse a three-year ratings slump since the departure of "Friends" and "Frasier" in May 2004. Silverman and Graboff were put in charge in late May as part of a network shake-up.
Besides Trump's renewal deal, they announced that Jerry Seinfeld, star of his own smash hit sitcom during the 1990s, will return to NBC in October to play himself in a rare guest turn on the season premiere of the comedy series "30 Rock."
Seinfeld already had plans to appear in a string of self-produced NBC "minisodes" airing during commercial breaks this fall to promote his work in the upcoming animated film "Bee Movie."
Silverman also outlined a reshuffling of NBC's prime-time fall schedule and some high-profile future projects, including a deal to pair up spoon-bending Israeli psychic Uri Geller and U.S. illusionist Criss Angel for a new reality show called "Phenomenon," billed as a talent search for the "next great mentalist."
In yet another deal, NBC has signed veteran TV producer Norman Lear, creator of the landmark comedy "All In the Family," to produce an hourlong "dramedy" series based on a single mother's battle of the sexes on Wall Street.
But Trump's impending return, and his invitation to O'Donnell, drew the most attention at the opening of NBC's annual summer presentation to TV critics.
Trump and O'Donnell made headlines last year with a nasty war of words that began when O'Donnell, then co-host of the daytime talk show "The View," mocked Trump on the air for his rebuke of disgraced beauty queen Tara Conner, Miss USA 2006.
Trump fired back with a series of public insults, calling O'Donnell, among other things, "a fat slob," "a loser" and "despicable." The feud continued off and on for months.
Silverman said a Trump-O'Donnell union would be "great for television," and he insisted the offer was genuine, though he conceded, "I don't know if she'd do it."
The proposal was almost instantly shot down by O'Donnell's publicist, Cindi Berger, whose terse reply when told of the idea was, "Not in this lifetime, or beyond."
"The Apprentice," which turned Trump into a TV star and popularized his catch phrase "You're fired," debuted in 2004 as a hit show featuring young entrepreneurs vying in a weekly game of elimination for a real job in Trump's business empire.
But the show steadily declined in the ratings in subsequent seasons and appeared headed for prime-time extinction when it was left off the 2007-08 programming schedule NBC announced in mid-May. Trump also said he had lost interest in the series.
Prospects for the show rebounded after Silverman took over and asked Trump and producers of "The Apprentice" to extend the network's option to renew it.
The show will return for a seventh edition next year with celebrity contestants raising money for various charities.
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