HOLLYWOOD — NBC president Jeff Zucker promises — swears — that the upcoming 10th season of "Friends" absolutely, positively, cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die will be the final for the sitcom. Really.

"Yes, it will be the final season," he said. "Even I acknowledge that."

Hard as it is for a man whose schedule depends so much on the hit sitcom to say that. Although he's already salivating at the prospect of what he thinks will happen in May 2004.

"I think it is safe to assume that the series finale of 'Friends' will be the single biggest event of that television season," Zucker said.

There won't, however, be a whole lot of "Friends." Eighteen half hours will be produced, but the final two will air as a single hourlong episode — meaning 17 nights of new "Friends" in the 36-week regular season.

Look for lots of repeats. And expect some "special scheduling" of episodes from past seasons.

But Zucker is willing to settle for 17 nights of new "Friends," given the alternative. And given that he says he didn't even expect to get those 18 half hours.

"Look, when this season began, I don't think any of us really thought that 'Friends' would come back," he said. "I held the door open when we met last summer, but even I didn't really fully believe that that would happen. It just took time and patience."

As to what turned the tide, "I think everyone associated there realized that it was too much fun to give up."

"WING"-ING IT: Not surprisingly, NBC has also renewed "The West Wing." The new deal firmly commits the network to two more seasons (at a reported $5 million per episode) with an option for a third. This despite a decided drop in the ratings this season.

"Candidly, the ratings are not what they were a year ago when they were probably artificially high in the wake of 9/11," Zucker said, reaching for an excuse. And he said it's "understandable" that "West Wing" has lost younger viewers to "The Bachelor."

"At the same time, there's no show on television that we'd rather have and that we think signifies exactly what NBC stands for," he said. "I can tell you that 'The West Wing' is as valuable to us as it's ever been."

PROVIDENTIAL: "Providence," which NBC canceled and then sort of un-canceled, has been canceled again.

Zucker, who promised to reconsider his decision to ax the show, says he did. But he didn't change his mind.

"I said that perhaps I had made a rash decision and that I would go back and look," he said. "And I think we did. We examined it. At the end of the day, 'Providence' has had four great years on NBC. . . . I'd rather make a decision like this two or three months early rather than two or three months late."

This may not be the absolute end of "Providence," however. Zucker said occasional movies reuniting the cast is "something that we would like to do."

CASTING ABOUT:Among the stunt casting NBC announced:Madonna on "Will & Grace" in her "prime-time network television debut."

Cybill Shepherd in "The Martha Stewart Story." (There's no truth to the rumor Martha Stewart will be starring in "The Cybill Shepherd Story.")

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Zucker said it will be a "straight bio-pic of her life. It's not going to be funny. Although some might find it funny, but that's not the intention."

Minnie Driver and Demi Moore will also appear on separate episodes of "Will & Grace." We're assured this will be Moore's "first appearance on network television in nine years," but she's hardly a TV newcomer. She did, after all, spend several years on "General Hospital."

And, on "American Dreams," look for Vanessa Carlton (as Dusty Springfield), India.Arie (as Nina Simone) and Le Ann Rimes (as Connie Francis). And Art Garfunkel will recur as the music-store owner.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com

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