NBC hopes it will survive `Survivor'

January 11, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES - Jeff Zucker has been NBC's new entertainment president for less than a month, but he's already faced with a serious threat to one of the network's most lucrative franchises: its dominance on Thursday nights, which stretches all the way back to "The Cosby Show" in the mid-1980s.

Following its post-Super-Bowl launch Jan. 28, CBS will air "Survivor: The Australian Outback" Thursday nights at 8 p.m. opposite NBC's "Friends," the second-most popular series on television, and the linchpin of NBC's Thursday night dominance. In addition, CBS also will move its freshman drama, "C.S.I." from its Friday night time-slot to 9 p.m. Thursdays starting Feb. 1.

This is a blood-in-the-water challenge to NBC, a network so troubled by such big-budget failures as "The Michael Richards Show" that it fired Zucker's predecessor, Garth Ancier, after less than three years on the job. It's a test, and Zucker knows it.

"I can tell you we're not going to roll over," Zucker said yesterday at a news conference held during the Winter Press Tour. "Look, `Friends' remains `Friends.' It's the best of its kind. We've got some great story lines for February. Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld") is going to be on one episode. Susan Sarandon is going to be on another. So, we're excited about that."

In one episode, Alexander plays a suicidal man who is randomly called by Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) when she takes a job as a telemarketer. In another episode, Sarandon plays a diva on a daytime soap opera who is suddenly fired. Joey (Matt LeBlanc) is the cast-mate who has to tell her.

"We know what `Survivor' is going to do," said Zucker, who was executive producer of NBC's "Today" from 1984 to 2000. "Hopefully, it's going to bring in new viewers to network television."

That's the best case scenario for NBC: that "Survivor" doesn't steal from "Friends" but attracts an audience who otherwise wouldn't be watching network television back on Thursday nights. But, even if "Friends" holds its own against the most-talked-about show on television from 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, there's still the problem of what to do during the second half of the hourlong "Survivor" after "Friends" is over.

"The Weber Show" (previously known as "Cursed"), a dismal new sitcom that has been airing at 8:30 Thursday nights on NBC, has been pulled from the schedule for retooling.

"We're not prepared to announce what we're going to do at 8:30," Zucker said yesterday. "But we're looking at some exciting possibilities. "We're talking to other NBC shows that are on the air [elsewhere on the schedule] about doing some special things in that time period." For instance, NBC might air a second episode of a hit show such as "Frasier" each week in that time slot.

"The easy thing would be to just put a repeat of "Friends" in there. And, at the end of the day, maybe that's what we'll do. But that's not what I want us to be about," Zucker said.

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