'Survivor' tries to outwit, outlast 'Friends'
Must-win TV comes to Thursdays
(CNN) -- It may be one of the most-anticipated showdowns in TV history, something more akin to a military maneuver than a viewership strategy. In what has become a pitched battle for Thursday night dominance, networks across the dial are shifting programming to counter CBS' "Survivor" series during the February sweeps period.
Some are heading to safer ground to avoid getting smashed by "Survivor: The Australian Outback," others are continuing with business and usual, and one network is positioning itself for a head-to-head competition with the reality-based show.
At least two networks are playing it safe, saving their best for a later day. The WB is delaying airing original episodes of its popular Thursday night show, "Gilmore Girls," and instead is showing episodes of "Charmed" during the sweeps. Fox is adopting a similar strategy, offering movies and specials during the period.
ABC and UPN, meanwhile, are going on as usual, airing their regular programming -- back-to-back episodes of "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" on ABC and "WWF Smackdown!" on UPN.
Then there's NBC, and the sitcom "Friends," long the 800-pound gorilla of Thursday prime time. The network is positioning its popular series against CBS' Outback show, and may the best production win.
Jeff Zucker, president of NBC entertainment, describes the impending face- off in terms a general might use on the eve of a battle.
"We're facing a challenge, something we haven't seen perhaps ever, in 'Survivor' -- perhaps the strongest show of the last 25 years to come down the pike," Zucker says. "And they're coming after us."
Zucker and his network face a keen competitor.
"Survivor"'s first regular Thursday night show on February 1 averaged 29 million viewers, higher than all but two "Survivor" episodes: the finale of last summer's original "Survivor" series (52 million tuned in) and the January 28 post-Super Bowl premiere of the Outback series (an audience of 45 million).
NBC has responded thus far with a novel approach to the "Survivor" challenge. Following the Super Bowl, the network produced a super-sized, 40-minute-long episode of "Friends," and followed that with a 20-minute edition of "Saturday Night Live." It garnered 22.2 million viewers -- great ratings under normal circumstances and roughly the same numbers for other "Friends" episodes this season.
CBS recognizes the challenge that NBC has mounted, and, like its competitor, welcomes the chance to see who's king of Thursday night TV.
"Survivor" is CBS' best shot to upend the rival network, says Mark Burnett, creator and executive producer of both original reality series.
"Clearly, CBS feels it's more important to take a run at NBC's Thursday night than just to air on a Wednesday alone (the night the original "Survivor" aired) and have enormous ratings," he says. "Clearly the mathematicians believe that, even if 'Friends' beats us, we'll meet our promise to advertisers and erode some of NBC's Thursday night advertising, which is clearly one of the most important advertising nights of the week.
"I feel honored that Leslie (Moonves, CBS president of entertainment) feels strongly enough about my product to let me be in the vanguard of his attack on NBC."
The face-off makes for fascinating watching, media analysts agree.
"It's a brilliant idea on CBS' part," says Lynette Rice, who writes for Entertainment Weekly. "On the one hand, they've done horribly on that night for years, so finally they have a way that they can build ratings.
"And even if they come in second place in the time slot, which they likely will, they're still going to do better in that hour than they have done. ... So it was a no-brainer for them."
Another consideration, Rice notes: "Friends" could lose some viewers to the "Survivor" series, "but I don't think "Friends" is going to lose entirely."
The biggest loser, she says, could be viewers, who will have to choose between two favored shows.
What will viewers do? Rice suspects the majority of Thursday watchers will tune in to "Friends" then quickly change channels to catch the conclusion of "Survivor," which is the segment when participants in the show learn who's getting booted off the show.
That's the same theory from someone who has a perspective most viewers lack -- Debb Eaton, the first to get kicked off the Outback "Survivor."
"We have our fans, and we are going to attract a lot more," she says. " 'Friends' is a great show. I think ours is better."
"Friends" or "Survivor"? New York's in-crowd set or Australia's Outback sweat?
In the battle of network heavyweights, it's Darwin's theory put to the prime- time test.
Australia welcomes 'Survivor' to Outback