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NEW YORK CITY-The now-shuttered Worldwide Cinemas may soon be ready for their close-up. Sources tell GlobeSt.com that NBC is past the looking stage and has decided to convert the sprawling subterranean space on 50th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues into television production studios. The network also is said to be discussing the possibility of leasing office space in a new mixed-use building going up across the street from the darkened theaters.

NBC did not return repeated calls for comment, but sources say the network has been eager to shed a large portion of its Rockefeller Center space since the 5.8-million-sf landmark was acquired earlier this year by local developer Jerry Speyer and the Crown family of Chicago. The sale price was $1.85 billion. In addition, plans to expand CNBC’s Fort Lee, NJ headquarters, reportedly back-burnered when the economy began to sag, may be heating up again.

The six-screen underground multiplex is a sensible match for NBC, since its large, contiguous spaces would be ideal for producing the kind of live-audience game shows and talk-fests that have long been network-television staples. The property’s ground-floor entrance would also provide marquis space for high-profile shows such as Late Night with Conan O’Brien, similar to that which David Letterman enjoys a few blocks away at the Ed Sullivan Theater.

The Hell’s Kitchen theaters have been a hot-button issue for years. Rumors of their imminent closure sent up a red flag among local activists concerned about the quality and scope of new development in the area. The $4-ticket movie house managed to keep its doors open until February, but as early as 1999 rumors of a Costco discount store taking over the space sent neighborhood watchdog groups into attack mode. The plan never materialized. Worldwide Plaza owner, Chicago-based Equity Office Property Trust, did not return phone calls.

In addition to building studios beneath the former Madison Square Garden site, NBC also is said to be in talks with J.E. Levine Builders about setting up housekeeping across the street at 311 W. 50th, where sources say the network plans to prelease office space. The unfinished mid-rise residential building has 3,500 sf of ground-floor commercial space available.

Levine representatives say they are unaware of any overtures from NBC. “There are no talks that we know of,” a Levine spokeswoman comments. Nevertheless, the source says Levine already has a commitment with NBC. The building is scheduled to open in January 2001.

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