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''Everybody Loves Raymond'' is TV's No. 1 sitcom

Plus, Jason Bateman stars in a gay themed show, NBC’s soaps bubble to the top, and more

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Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, ...
Everybody Loves Raymond: Monty Brinton

‘RAY’ OF LIGHT Forget ”Survivor” — it appears that CBS’ real threat to ”Friends” is ”Everybody Loves Raymond.” Ray Romano’s fifth season farce recently surpassed NBC’s Must See tent pole as TV’s top ranked sitcom in total viewers. ”It’s been a nice, slow climb so we could get adjusted to the altitude,” says creator Philip Rosenthal. (”Friends” still leads among viewers 18 to 49, but ”Raymond”’s now a top 10 show in that demo as well.)

CBS is close to inking a deal with producers HBO and Worldwide Pants for two more seasons of ”Raymond,” after which Romano and Rosenthal say they may call it quits. ”I never saw a show get better after seven years,” Rosenthal explains. What if CBS backs up a money truck and begs Ray to stay? ”That?ll be a tough call,” Romano admits. ”Then again, they have some big trucks.” –Bruce Fretts

CBS: WELCOME HOMO Speaking of CBS sitcoms, Ellen DeGeneres’ new show isn’t the only gay themed comedy coming to the Eye network. The midseason roster features ”Me and Frankie Z,” a sitcom about a really odd couple of roommates: a homosexual Greenwich Villager (”George & Leo”’s Jason Bateman) and a straight guy (”Titanic”’s Danny Nucci) from the Bronx. (It’s based on the 1997 indie flick ”Kiss Me Guido,” but the title was changed to avoid offending Italian Americans.)

Bateman has high hopes that his new series will win over CBS viewers: ”I was a huge fan of ‘Survivor.’ I kept saying, ‘This is great for my show — CBS has a gay star.”’ He’s even up for a little Richard Hatch like exposure: ”I’ll be nude at mall openings — whatever it takes.” –BF

NBC’S SOAPS FLOAT ”Passions” may be the second worst rated soap on daytime television (the first being ABC’s ”Port Charles”), but NBC isn’t convinced it has a failure on its hands. The Peacock just picked up the daytime drama for another year. Why? Because soap viewing among the three nets — which has taken a nosedive over the last few years due to changing viewing patterns — is actually up 5 percent this season, thanks to surprising gains made by NBC’s ”Days of Our Lives” and ”Passions” (CBS and ABC, in comparison, posted slight declines over last year).

In fact, ”Passions” attracted 2.8 million viewers during the last week of 2000, its largest audience ever. ”I reject the notion that soap operas have run their course,” argues Sheraton Kalouria, NBC’s daytime chief. ”This genre has withstood radio to TV and TV to cable. I believe the form will sustain itself.” Further proof of industry optimism: Columbia Pictures Television — producer of ”Days” and CBS’ ”The Young and the Restless” — plans to create a soap destination of its own, à la ABC’s SoapNet cable channel. After failing to launch the cable network SoapCity, CPTV is currently devising a plan to offer fans a way to order sudsy reruns via pay per view. Offering diva vs. diva cage matches couldn’t hurt.

AND SO ON… Insiders say the latest TV project from the ”Blair Witch” producers, a remake of the ’70s reality show ”In Search Of…,” is no longer on course for Fox’s midseason lineup because execs were less than thrilled by early scripts; now the ”Blair Witch” folks have bolted and new producers are coming aboard. We sense a trend here: The team’s first TV project, ”FreakyLinks,” was overhauled before debuting this fall to dismal ratings.