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February 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Long before prime-time 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.

As for the marquee match-up, ”I don’t think we harbor any thoughts about beating Friends,” says CBS scheduling head Kelly Kahl, who’s obviously been crunching the Nielsen numbers. Last summer, Survivor averaged 28.2 million viewers — but that was on Wednesday nights opposite reruns. This season, Friends has averaged 20.2 million viewers (about the same as last season) in the face of youth-friendly competition like UPN’s Smackdown! and The WB’s Gilmore Girls. ”I would expect Survivor to skew a bit older than it did on Wednesday, given the younger-skewing competition on the other nets,” says broadcast researcher Steve Sternberg, who thinks Friends has a good chance of dominating the face-off among total viewers. ”But demographically, we could see both shows doing well, with Friends winning among 18-34 and Survivor winning among 18-49.”

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