'Millionaire' proves to be rich battle for NBC

Dating back to 1984 with a “Cosby,” “Family Ties” and “Cheers” triumvirate, NBC has owned Thursday nights and Peacock execs are betting that with a little schedule manipulation, that stranglehold can endure.

In a move that is skewed to bring in younger viewers, NBC has flopped “Frasier” and “Will & Grace,” moving the Kelsey Grammer laffer to Tuesdays and bringing “Will” — and its attractive demos — over to the 9 p.m. Thursday slot.

While “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” has proved to be a juggernaut that Peacock execs continually struggle to counter, the thinking behind this sitcom switch is that if the gameshow phenomenon wears off, NBC will have positioned “Will” as a show to which auds, who haven’t already tuned in, will flock.

“It’s a long-term move and they wanted fresher legs there,” says Tim Spangler, exec VP and director of national broadcasts for Initiative Media. “Some people might be concerned that it won’t play in Middle America but you have to put your best show in your best time period and this might be their best show.”

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters certainly would agree: “Will & Grace” landed 11 Emmy nominations, including for best comedy and for each of the four leads. The new Steven Webber sitcom, “Cursed,” slotted at 8:30, has the responsibility of delivering an audience that will spill into “Will.”

“To me, the Webber show is NBC’s most important,” continues Spangler. “The key for NBC is going to be Thursdays from 9-10.”

Spangler also sees the first hour of primetime of vital importance to the network. On Mondays, NBC goes with “Daddio,” which received lukewarm reviews and Nielsens as a midseason replacement. The following day is the big question: How will the yet unseen “The Michael Richards Show” fare? If “Richards” tanks — it’s also going up against “Millionaire” — the entire Tuesday-night sked could be in trouble.

On the drama side, NBC has received excellent buzz on both “Ed,” from David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants outfit, and “Deadline,” from Dick Wolf.

The key to “Ed” (8 p.m. Sundays) might be in its ability to gather male viewers. With the Peacock losing football a couple of years back, most guys are gonna be tuned into Fox and CBS on Sunday afternoons, and Fox, especially, is going to pushing guys to tune in to “Malcolm in the Middle.” NBC has to hope that strong word of mouth will convince viewers to click over to “Ed,” which may be headed for a new timeslot if things don’t fare well early.

“Deadline,” at 9 p.m. Mondays, faces a tougher challenge in getting guys, going up against “Monday Night Football” on ABC and “Everybody Loves Raymond” on CBS. And to make matters worse for the Peacock, if David E. Kelley’s new drama “Boston Public” hits at 8 p.m. Mondays on Fox, auds may stay tuned to “Ally McBeal” at 9.

“The West Wing” was NBC’s pride and joy last year, and there’s no reason to think Wednesday night will slump this fall, especially with “Law & Order” continuing to roll at 10 p.m. Time will tell if Aaron Spelling’s “Titans” will start things off on a positive note at 8.

Quality may not matter, though, if Regis Philbin and “Millionaire” continue to dominate on its newest night.

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