There's a battle about to be waged on a TV set near you. The players are NBC's gaggle of "Friends" vs. CBS' "Survivor" outbackers.
And although the Survivors might be willing to do just about anything to win, Rachel, Ross and the gang have years of experience winning. Either way, the outcome could mean a shift in the viewing habits of an entire generation.
Not since the "The Cosby Show" began in 1984 has another network seriously threatened the dominance of NBC's Thursday-night lineup and, for that matter, the huge advertising revenue that comes with it.
But CBS is betting that's all about to change when it pits "Survivor: The Australian Outback" against NBC's powerhouse "Friends" starting today, the first night of the sweeps month. (The first episode of "Survivor" was broadcast Sunday after the Super Bowl, then moves to its regular spot opposite "Friends.") CBS will fight to keep the anticipated audience it reels in from "Survivor 2" by following with "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," its strongest performer of the season.
"Thursdays have been dominated by NBC for more than 10 years," said Kelly Kahl, CBS senior vice president of program planning and scheduling. "That's a night we have not performed well on for a long, long time. You pray for something like 'Survivor' to come along. When we had this opportunity, we had to seize it."
Enter Jeff Zucker, former executive producer of NBC's tremendously successful "Today," who masterminded the show's recent additional hour and the popular early-morning concerts in New York's Rockefeller Plaza. His arrival comes at just the right time -- it was during his first week on the new job that CBS declared war on NBC's coveted Thursday-night lineup. Zucker has an extensive background in news and was likely hired for his ability not to think like the typical network executive.
And his response to CBS's advances isn't the typical programming fare.
An expanded "Friends" will run 10 minutes longer each of the four Thursdays during sweeps, with two weeks of "Saturday Night Live" skits filling in the remaining time. During the third Thursday, "Friends" will be followed by outtakes from that show and interviews with the cast by Conan O'Brien. The final Thursday, "Will & Grace" and "Just Shoot Me" also will be broadcast an additional 10 minutes each.
"For almost 20 years, Thursday night has been the bedrock of NBC, and (from) a creative and business standpoint, it is the most important night of TV during the week," Zucker said by phone from Los Angeles. "We don't want to just roll over and let ("Survivor") enjoy the success it had last summer."
Zucker is referring to Thursday's importance to the advertising world. Thursday night is the gateway to the weekend, it's advertisers' last chance to lure moviegoers to the theaters the night before films open and to lure shoppers to the department stores. And shows such as "Survivor" and "Friends" draw the coveted young demographic that CBS has lacked for so many years, with its Thursday-night diet of "Diagnosis Murder" and "48 Hours."
Some people in advertising see older shows as nearing the end of their run and commend CBS on its decision to put "Survivor 2" on where there are likely holes.
"Thursday night they just saw an opportunity; it's really solid, but there are starting to be cracks, with shows aging," said Laura Caraccioli, vice president of Starcom Entertainment, a media buying company.
But like all of the other networks, CBS might have the right idea by nurturing reality programs now. CBS recently announced it agreed with "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett to create at least two more seasons of the show. That's important because the looming actors' and writers' strikes -- the writers are set to strike May 1 and actors June 1 -- might mean a dearth of any kind of shows, let alone new ones.
Although NBC is looking at reality programming, that's not its main focus, Zucker said.
"Strike or no strike, the key is to find good programs that people want to watch, whether that's scripted comedies and dramas or unscripted reality shows," he said. "When you have a combination of all three, that's the best situation."
As of Thursday, viewers must decide between reality and fantasy. But it might not be that difficult.
After all, VCRs weren't as prevalent during the reign of the Huxtables, but in this era of Monica and Rachel, we're pretty sure viewers know how to press the record button.
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