NBC is betting a large chunk of its fortunes this year on a thick-headed character named Joey and a financial wizard whose casinos teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. Tonight, with the premiere of the Friends spin-off, Joey, and the return of Donald Trump in the reality series, The Apprentice, the network will play its super-size poker hand as tens of millions of Americans watch.
Since 1984, NBC has dominated Thursday night prime-time television with a string of successes including The Cosby Show, Friends, Seinfeld and Cheers. But this season, after the finale last May of Friends - and the lack of a sure-fire blockbuster to replace the long-running hit - the other networks smell blood.
"Beyond all the reality series, the big headline this fall is that Friends isn't on NBC," said Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic program planning at Fox.
"And, as much as Jeff Zucker [president of the NBC Universal Television Group] and company are pointing to The Apprentice as the savior of the network, they could be in real trouble."
The stakes are high. Though Thursday night television doesn't attract the highest overall viewership (Sunday does), it draws the largest number of viewers in the 18-to-49-year-old age group so coveted by advertisers. In particular, it's the night on which Hollywood studios, hoping to draw young adults to their weekend movie openings, prefer to advertise. On Thursday alone last year, the six broadcast networks earned a total of $2.5 billion in prime time advertising revenues. About 44 percent - $1.1 billion -- went to NBC.
Promoting itself as "must-see TV," NBC's command was so complete that until recently, industry convention held that it was foolhardy for other networks to expend much effort on Thursday nights. Only last year, with the finale of Friends in sight, did CBS pit two potential hits, reality TV series Survivor and drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, against NBC's Friends and Will & Grace. By the end of last season, CBS had begun making major inroads into NBC dominance - and this fall, Fox and WB are entering the ring.
"There is absolutely blood in the water. I think that CBS is licking its chops thinking, `Hey, we don't have Friends to contend with anymore,'" said Brian Decker, executive vice president and media director for Eisner Communications, one of the East Coast's largest buyers of commercial television time.
"But it's not just Survivor and CSI on CBS. Now there's Fox's The O.C. and the WB's Blue Collar TV," he said. Decker pointed out that both Fox's red-hot teen drama about life in Orange County and WB's sketch comedy show featuring Jeff Foxworthy appeal to young adult audiences.
Beginning at 8 tonight, NBC hopes to capitalize on the popularity of Friends, which told the story of six 20-somethings living in New York, with a half-hour spin-off starring actor Matt LeBlanc.
At 8:30 p.m., the second season of The Apprentice begins with a special 90-minute episode. (Will & Grace, a sophisticated sitcom featuring gay characters, will enter its seventh season at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 16, with The Apprentice moving to its regular 9 p.m. time period.)
The network's hold on the Thursday night purse strings depends upon Joey and The Apprentice. "It's all about the execution of Joey - how that show unfolds with the core Friends audience at 8 o'clock," said David Janollari, WB's president of entertainment.
Unlike Friends, which had no targeted competition for young adult viewers, he added, Joey faces stiff competition. "The O.C. is a real power hitter and Fox putting that up against Joey is a real power play."
In tonight's episode of Joey, former Friends character, Joey Tribbiani, moves from New York to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. The show also features Joey's sister (Drea de Matteo, best known as Adriana from HBO's The Sopranos) and her college-age son (Paulo Costanzo). The title character is as handsome and clueless as ever, but the absence of his friends is sorely felt.
Even if Joey proves a success, it is unlikely that it can match its predecessor, industry experts predict. "NBC is definitely going to lose some viewers at the start of the evening," Decker said.
That means for NBC to break even, The Apprentice must better its phenomenal first-season success. Beginning tonight, the reality TV series will introduce 18 new applicants who arrive at New York's Trump Tower to vie for a job with Donald Trump.
Rated the seventh highest show overall last year, The Apprentice attracted an average weekly audience of 20.7 million viewers. Friends, by contrast, averaged 21.4 million a week, while CSI and Survivor, averaged 25.6 and 21.5 million respectively.
But success, even for a hit, is never guaranteed. Though executive producer Mark Burnett called the first three episodes of The Apprentice the "best work" of his career, the reality show guru has produced failures: His series, Casino, was one of the summer's most notable flops.