NEW YORK — Novelist Raymond Chandler must be big at NBC, where the motto seems to be "the long goodbye."

NBC's sitcom "Friends," you remember, was absolutely, positively going bye-bye last season. Yet here it is, still holding down the Thursday fort in this, its absolutely, positively, we're-not-kidding-this-time final year.

Thus did NBC postpone the day of reckoning when it will say sayonara to arguably its most important series without a proven hit to fill the breach.

Managing to squeeze a little more "Friends" out of the toothpaste tube — Jeff Zucker regards this as his proudest achievement in his three years as head of NBC Entertainment (or so he told The New York Times in September).

Zucker didn't cite the gross-out exploits of "Fear Factor," one of his ratings successes. Or his Must-See TV "supersizing" gimmick that supersizes commercial time. Or sitcom flameouts like "Coupling," "The In-Laws" or "Emeril."

Now, according to recent reports, "Frasier" may delay its expected goodbye and return next fall for a 12th season.

"The door is still ajar," Zucker told Variety last week.

Maybe NBC needs to bust open some new doors. "Frasier" has been a great sitcom, and a masterpiece compared to attempts like "Good Morning, Miami" and "Whoopi." But how to account for NBC's time-honored failure to replenish its lineup with a latter-day "Friends" or "Frasier," which leaves it desperately clinging to aging hits (add "ER" to the over-the-hill gang) whose best years are behind them?

Of course, the fall 2003 crop hasn't exactly proven a bounty for any of the networks, a shortfall Zucker has attributed to the fact that "some of the programming just sucked."

Not to argue with an expert, but there might be even better reasons why the audience is rejecting the networks' new series (for which viewership is down 7 percent from last year's freshman class) — and why, season after season, viewers are steadily defecting to cable.

Maybe they feel that the way the networks go about their programming, and not just the programs themselves, is (in Zucker-speak) "sucky."

Look no further than NBC, and the way it rubs the audience's nose in its "Law & Order" franchise.

Since debuting in 1990, "Law & Order" has provided some of the best episodic drama in TV history. Its spin-offs, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (debuting in 1999) and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (2001) are solid dramas, too.

But there's a pall of over-familiarity settling across the whole "L&O" product line (in October, stories inspired by real-life New York Times reporter Jayson Blair aired on both "Law & Order" and "Criminal Intent").

Don't be surprised to see a fourth "Law & Order" sibling. Meanwhile, count on NBC to keep plugging "Law & Order" reruns into every troubled time slot like fingers in a leaky dike.

Why not? Beating a good idea into the ground (as CBS is likely to do with "CSI" or as ABC did, to its everlasting regret, with "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" a couple of seasons ago) is what networks do best.

If networks really cared about viewers, would they:

— Keep their schedules in such flux that even TV critics, who are paid to make sense of this shell game, get confused?

— Keep relinquishing entire nights to repeats of series the network is already airing other nights of the week?

— Keep scheduling similar shows against each other? One example: By body-slamming its new Rob Lowe courtroom drama, "The Lyon's Den," against ABC's surprisingly resurgent courtroom drama, "The Practice," NBC hastened the swift demise of its best fall entry.

— Keep promising more while giving less? Consider Zucker'spromotion which, during two hours on Thursday, Oct. 30, boasted supersize editions of "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "Scrubs."

But get out the stopwatch: The actual program time for these three episodes totaled 78 minutes. That left 42 minutes of ads — or about 10 minutes more than for a typical two-hour comedy block.

To hype such programming as "supersize" — well, Zucker should be finding some new comedies that funny!