RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — The next reality TV show just could center on the unraveling of the management team at Nortel.

Who will survive the continuing shakeout of the telecommunications and networking giant?

And who can say there is no accountability in big business these days?

Shares of Nortel fell 28 percent Wednesday following the company’s decision to fire Frank Dunn, its chief executive officer. More than 180 million shares were traded by noon.

That big comeback Nortel stock had made in recent months just went bye-bye.

A statement from Nortel said that Dunn, who was chief financial officer of the company before being named CEO, was fired “for cause.” He was named CEO in October of 2001.

Two other top-level executives who had been on paid leave were also terminated as part of Nortel’s continuing investigation into financial reports over the past three years.

Shares of Nortel (NYSE: NT) plummeted $1.60 to close at $4.04. That’s less than haf the recent 52-week high of $8.50, but still above the low of $2.47.

William Owens, a director of Nortel, was named to replace Dunn. He was chairman and CEO of Teledesic before accepting the new position. He was named a director at Nortel in February of 2202.

“Former chief financial officer, Douglas Beatty, and former controller, Michael Gollogly, both of whom had been placed on paid leave of absence by Nortel Networks on March 15, 2004, have been terminated for cause,” the company said in a statement.

Their interim replacements, William Kerr as chief financial officer and MaryAnne Pahapill as controller, were made permanent.

Nortel also said it would have to revise earnings for 2003, 2002 and 2001 and would delay its report for the first quarter of 2004.

Earnings for 2003 will be cut 50 percent, with some of that income being redirected to 2002 and 2001, the company said. The investigation by Nortel and outside government agencies goes as far back as 2000.

“The Board of Directors believes that the actions announced today are about accountability for our financial reporting and are in the best interests of the Company and all of its stakeholders, including our investors, customers and employees,” said Lynton Wilson, chairman of the board for Nortel, in a statement. “These actions are an important step in the process of restoring confidence in the Company’s leadership and financial reporting.”

Four other executives were also placed on leave.

“I am fully committed to doing all that is necessary to maintain the business momentum and leadership position of this company,” Owens said upon accepting the job as CEO. “I also want to express my unqualified support for the approximately 35,300 outstanding employees who are the lifeblood of this company. As an organization, we remain committed to our business strategy of technology and solutions leadership in helping our customers transform their networks to drive revenue growth and improved productivity. And importantly, I want to see this company meet the highest standards of integrity and transparency in its financial reporting.”

In a conference call later, The Associated Press quoted Owen as saying: “Financial accountability will become our watchwords. Trust and transparency will be watchwords.”

The AP also quoted chairman Wilson as calling Tuesday “a very long day for the board and its advisors. The decision to terminate Frank Dunn was particularly difficult, but it is the right decision for the company.”

The full press release and SEC filing from Nortel make for interesting reading. Check it out at: biz.yahoo.com/e/040428/nt8-k.html