Long before primetime TV was introduced to the mystical powers of tiki torches and immunity idols, a little show called ”Friends” consistently outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed every competitor in its path. (”Nothing Sacred,” ”C-16,” ”Vengeance Unlimited,” and ”Charlie Grace” are just a few of the shows the sitcom kicked off rival networks’ schedules.) But now that CBS is taking on Schwimmer and Co. with ”Survivor: The Australian Outback,” will the powerful sextet finally meet its Nielsen match?
NBC, for one, doesn’t think you’ll be there for ”Friends.” ”We fully expect ‘Survivor’ to win the hour,” admits recently installed NBC Entertainment prez Jeff Zucker. ”’Survivor’ is a phenomenon. There really hasn’t been any buzz about anything like it in a long time.” Conversely, it’s been a while since the seven year old ”Friends” has generated publicity that didn’t involve the cast’s salary demands. And following a strong season last year, some critics say Aniston’s umpteenth haircut and a plot that may push Phoebe and Joey onto the show’s ever revolving romantic merry go round just aren’t novel enough twists to get people talking.
”’Friends’ isn’t a watercooler show, and ‘Survivor”s got that hype,” says Dana Friedman of media investment company MindShare. ”You can always catch ‘Friends’; you know they’re going to be repeating. If you miss one ‘Survivor,’ then you’ve missed it.” Even Friends exec producer David Crane acknowledges his show’s buzz deficit. ”We’ve been the No. 1 comedy for the last [several] years, and yet there are a number of times when people look at us like comfortable furniture,” says Crane. ”You can’t live without it but you don’t really notice it.”
Still, NBC isn’t going to just cave in like a bug infested fig. ”Friends” has a few February sweeps casting coups (Jason Alexander played Phoebe’s suicidal telemarketing target in one episode, and Susan Sarandon depicts a soap diva in another) in addition to those 10 extra minutes per episode. And if the usual ”Friends” fare doesn’t dampen the thunder from Down Under, Zucker’s hoping a never before seen ”Friends” outtake show — not to mention the ”supersized” versions of ”Will & Grace” and ”Just Shoot Me” on Feb. 22 — will.
Remaining surprisingly low key through all this is CBS, which launched its programming assault with one simple goal: to improve its ratings on an ad dollar rich night where, historically, it’s been lucky to attract even a handful of viewers under 60 years of age. But rest assured, the Eye is definitely milking this opportunity for all it’s worth: In the post- ”Survivor” 2 time slot, it’s replacing ”Diagnosis: Murder” with the season’s highest rated new drama, ”CSI” — a risky move that could either cement the show’s burgeoning success or stifle the roll ”CSI”’s been on in its less competitive Friday night perch.