NEW YORK (AP) _ Steve Friedman, the brash former ''Today'' producer who later bombed with a TV version of USA Today newspaper, is rejoining NBC as the new executive producer of ''NBC Nightly News,'' NBC said Friday.

The move, which portends a new look and direction for the program anchored by Tom Brokaw, comes at a time when the broadcast is slumping in the ratings, alternating with the ''CBS Evening News'' in third place.

Friedman helped ''Today'' become first in the ratings before he left NBC in 1987.

The New York Times quoted one unidentified NBC executive as saying the appointment signaled that former ''Today'' co-host Jane Pauley would soon become co-anchor of the newscast with Brokaw. The executive predicted Ms. Pauley's addition to the broadcast would be gradual, with no definitive move until the fall, Saturday's Times reported.

NBC News president Michael G. Gartner told The Times that adding Ms. Pauley to the newscast was ''not on the table today'' and ''not part of the reason Steve was brought in.'' He added: ''I'm not saying it will never happen. Who knows?''

Friedman will succeed Bill Wheatley, executive producer of ''NBC Nightly News'' for five years. Gartner issued a statement praising Wheatley but saying he thinks ''it's time to take the broadcast in a different direction.'' Wheatley will remain at NBC News.

In a brief interview, Brokaw called Wheatley ''one of the good guys,'' a tireless worker and ''a great friend and colleague. I'm going to miss him.''

Friedman said he will start work the first week in June. That also is when NBC affiliates will have their annual convention.

His return to NBC will mark his third time working with Brokaw. The two were colleagues in the early 1970s at NBC-owned KNBC-TV in Burbank, where Brokaw was an anchorman. Friedman began his NBC career there as a newswriter.

Later, Friedman was executive producer of ''Today'' when Brokaw was its co- host. The former left NBC in mid-1987 to join GTG, a new company formed by the Gannett Co. and former NBC chairman Grant Tinker.

Friedman created for GTG a TV version of the USA Today newspaper. ''USA Today on TV'' cost $40 million to start up. It premiered in a blaze of publicity in September 1988 on 156 stations, with four anchors, short stories, a fast pace and a busy assortment of high-tech graphics. It was thoroughly panned by critics.

Its ratings fell despite format changes and it went off the air on Jan. 8. Friedman, who had been president of GTG's New York branch, quit the company last May.

The NBC newscast he now will take over often was first in ratings the year he left the network. But in the just-ended season of 1989-90, it was third, averaging a 9.9 rating.

The ''CBS Evening News'' averaged a 10.1 rating. The new Nielsen champion, ABC's ''World News Tonight,'' had a 10.9. Each ratings point represents 921,000 homes.