Maybe, but the network's ploy reveals its own programming weaknesses

January 19, 2001 at 12:00 PM EST

In a season full of unusual programming stunts, NBC is upping the ante. To help ”Friends” (8 p.m.) battle CBS’ ”Survivor: The Australian Outback” (8 to 9 p.m.) on Thursday nights, the Peacock network will air four 40 minute episodes of the sitcom throughout February sweeps. In the leftover 20 minute slot, NBC will broadcast mini presentations of brand new ”Saturday Night Live” shows. (At least for the first two weeks; the network hasn’t revealed whether ”SNL” will continue in that slot the entire month.) Jeff Zucker, NBC’s new entertainment president, explained to reporters that NBC would not ”roll over and die” against the much hyped ”Survivor” sequel.

By stretching ”Friends” past 8:30 p.m., NBC aims to keep viewers from switching to CBS for the latter half of ”Survivor 2.” But media analysts say that won’t stop folks from tuning in for the weekly ”tribal councils,” in which contestants are voted off the show. ”Even people who stick with ‘Friends’ to the bitter end will immediately go to ‘Survivor,”’ says Tom Watson, research director at media buying firm Initiative Media. Even so, the good news for NBC is that ”Survivor”’s Nielsen ratings will likely dip because of those extra 10 minutes viewers stick with ”Friends.”

So what can you expect from the expanded ”Friends” — and where will the extra few minutes of comedy come from? ”It’s not like the shows were already finished and we’re going back to tack stuff on to the end,” says Barbara Tranchito, the show’s publicist. She explains that the series’ scripts usually run long, so instead of trimming those extra minutes, producers will leave them in.

To further boost viewership, the February sweeps episodes will feature two high profile guest stints: On Feb. 1, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) gets a telemarketing job, and Jason Alexander will play a suicidal phone customer. And on Feb. 15, Susan Sarandon will play a washed up ”Days of Our Lives” star. Those dates may turn out to be the only chance for fans to catch those episodes in full, since the longer shows will be edited to 30 minutes for repeats and syndication.

Although NBC’s unprecedented move may put a dent in ”Survivor,” Watson says the decision to fatten ”Friends” proves one thing: The network has no other stellar sitcoms in development. ”I give NBC credit for creativity, but what it really means is that they have nothing else to offer,” he says. ”It’s like Scarlett O’Hara making her gown out of window dressing. It’s a good idea, but it’s cheap.” Plus, once this February stunt is finished, the network will still need a show for the critical 8:30 p.m. time slot (the underperforming and critically panned sitcom ”The Weber Show” — a.k.a ”Cursed” — is on hiatus).

On the other hand, CBS will emerge as a winner even if ”Friends” cuts into ”Survivor”’s viewership. Why? By combining the survival show with the surprise new hit ”C.S.I.” (which moves to Thursdays on Feb. 1), the network will almost certainly resuscitate the long dead weeknight, which had relied on straggling shows like ”48 Hours” and ”Diagnosis: Murder.” ”CBS might as well have aired a sign that said ‘Closed for Business’ these past few years,” Watson says about its Thursday lineup.

TV insiders had expected CBS to put ”Survivor 2” on Sunday or Wednesday nights, when it could be assured its largest audience, but CBS chief Leslie Moonves instead chose to improve the network’s weakest lineup. ”That was one of the gutsiest moves CBS has ever made, and it was also the smartest,” praises Watson. ”Any numbers they get now will put them back in the game.” Sounds like somebody’s been taking ”Survivor”’s ”Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” directive to heart.

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