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''Will & Grace'' prepares to battle ''Millionaire''

Star Eric McCormack explains the pressure of taking ”Frasier”’s coveted Must See time slot

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Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, ...
Will & Grace: Chris Haston

Frasier Crane has reason to be sleepless in Seattle this season. Not only did ”Frasier,” a five time best comedy Emmy winner, lose the statuette to first time nominee ”Will & Grace,” it lost its time slot to the young whippersnappers as well. This week the gay themed show takes over ”Frasier”’s coveted Must See TV spot (season premiere, Thursday, Oct. 12, 9 p.m.), bumping the neurotic shrink to Tuesdays at 9 p.m.. ”When I heard about the move, my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, that’s fantastic!”’ says ”Will & Grace” star Eric McCormack. ”And my second thought was, ‘I sure hope I’m not going to run into Kelsey Grammer this week.”’

Good thinking. Grammer didn’t hide his disappointment in NBC’s decision to relocate ”Frasier,” which now faces off against ABC’s ”Dharma & Greg,” CBS’ ”60 Minutes II,” Fox’s ”Dark Angel,” and the WB’s ”Angel.” To add insult to moving related injury, the ”Cheers” alum claims he found out about the switch from the media instead of the network, which had already promised to return him to Thursdays. ”In the world of network decisions, personal feelings don’t count,” he griped to TV Guide. McCormack is sympathetic: ”I’m sure to him it looks like he got sent to the minors.”

But was the bump the right move for NBC? The network has been in a ratings nosedive for months since missing the reality TV craze (which has helped the once ailing CBS) and game show bandwagon (which aided ABC). Will NBC be messing with success on Thursday nights? NBC’s strongest shows are aging (”ER,” ”Friends,” ”Law & Order”) and newer entries are looking shaky. The Oct. 2 premieres of the second season ”Daddio” and fledgling ”Tucker” were 23 percent lower than last year’s launches of the now departed sitcoms ”Suddenly Susan” and ”Veronica’s Closet.”

Though ”Frasier” fans may disagree, the Peacock Network seems to have made the right move. ”NBC has a plan for the future, and this was very smart,” says Marc Berman of Mediaweek. ”The network needs a show that can hold that time slot for a few more years, and realistically, how much longer can ‘Frasier’ last? ‘Will & Grace,’ which is younger and has more momentum, won’t do better [this season] than ‘Frasier,’ but the move could pay off in the long run.” The network agrees. ”’Will & Grace” is a great match for our Thursday night lineup,” an NBC spokeswoman tells EW.com. ”It’s a young skewing show that reaches demographics that better match the Thursday night profile.”

Berman also notes that, unlike other sitcoms bumped from Thursdays (”Caroline in the City,” ”Veronica’s Closet”), ”Frasier” is likely to retain more of its fan base, possibly boosting Tuesday night’s comedy heavy programming (”The Michael Richards Show,” ”3rd Rock From the Sun,” ”DAG”). And, though there’s probably nothing that can save ”Cursed,” Thursday’s unfortunately named Steven Weber sitcom (premieres Oct. 26, 8:30), which was dumped by its creators and retooled nearly a month before its premiere, Berman believes ”Will & Grace” will be a promising lead-in to the uneven David Spade series ”Just Shoot Me” (season premiere Oct. 12, 9:30 p.m.).

Still, there is the risk that ”Will & Grace” will get whipped by the heavy hitting competition: ABC’s ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” ”I think we’ll have bigger numbers than we’ve ever had, but maybe ‘Millionaire’ will slaughter us, I don’t know,” sighs McCormack. Whatever the fallout, don’t look for the NBC series’ stars to pal around at this year’s company picnic. ”I hope when [Grammer] sees me, he’ll a) remember my name, and b) forgive me.” says McCormack. Maybe they should look into group therapy.