LOS ANGELES (AP) _ NBC News defended itself against protests Tuesday over its plans to interview O.J. Simpson, and Bryant Gumbel missed the ``The Today Show'' after his boss said he couldn't appear with his longtime friend.

``We're not in a popularity contest here,'' NBC News President Andy Lack said after viewers and women's groups criticized the network's decision to give Simpson a forum on TV Wednesday night.

``We're reporters. We're journalists. NBC News has a responsibility in this area,'' Lack said. ``I hope, after tomorrow night, that people will say NBC did a responsible, fair and objective program in dealing with this issue.''

For his part, Simpson appears to be hoping to reach those upset by his acquittal last week in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.

```It's clear to me I ought to do that (an interview) now or else I'm going to continue in a life that I'm uncomfortable with at the moment,''' Lack quoted Simpson as telling his old friend, NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer.

Simpson, a onetime NBC sports commentator, turned to his former employer amid reports that major pay-TV companies weren't interested in a pay-per-view broadcast.

``NBC Nightly News'' anchor Tom Brokaw and ``Today'' co-host Katie Couric will interview Simpson around 9 p.m. EDT, as part of a special ``Dateline'' broadcast live from 8-11 p.m. Wednesday in the East and on tape delay in the West. Europeans can see it on NBC's Super Channel.

Lack said he removed Gumbel from the interview team because Gumbel's 20-year friendship with Simpson posed at least the perception of a conflict of interest.

``He does not quarrel with that decision; he is pained by it,'' Lack added, saying Gumbel believed he could have ``risen above'' his relationship with Simpson and been objective.

Asked why Gumbel was not on ``Today'' on Tuesday, Lack said ``I think he called in sick.''

Lack said additional security will be in place at the Burbank studio, where the National Organization for Women planned to demonstrate Wednesday.

``This is an hourlong infomercial for Mr. Simpson's career,'' said Nicole Perlman of the Los Angeles NOW chapter. ``If he wanted to answer any questions, he should have answered (prosecutor) Marcia Clark's.''

Late Tuesday, police had already started blocking off some streets around the studio, Sgt. William Berry said.

Lack said Simpson told Ohlmeyer that the network shouldn't profit from the interview, and that he wanted no money for himself, or a future job at NBC.

The interview itself will be commercial-free, and the number and price of ads weren't raised for the rest of the program, the network said. While no advertisers pulled out as of Tuesday, ad executives said the ad-less hour could cost NBC up to $1.4 million.

``We're going to lose money on the night. That's just straightforward,'' Lack said.

Rival networks CBS and Fox are pre-empting their regular programming to show reruns during the ``Dateline'' broadcast. ABC plans to go ahead with its regularly scheduled broadcast of baseball playoffs.

Lack said Simpson had set no ground rules and will be asked tough questions about evidence, domestic abuse and other aspects of his murder trial.

``We're gonna ask the questions on everybody's minds, and they're tough questions,'' Lack said. But he cautioned ``we're not prosecutors, we're not interrogators in the courtroom sense.'' And he also acknowledged that Simpson still faces civil suits from the Brown and Goldman families.

Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. probably will be in NBC's Burbank studio for the interview, but Lack said he saw ``no reason'' why Cochran would be directly involved or inhibit questioning.

Cochran predicted Tuesday that Simpson will be ``very compelling. ... You'll get to hear a little bit on how it feels to have been wrongfully accused and how it feels to have been the subject of a rush to judgment.''