Rival nets plot how to take over Thursday night

NBC is about to lose its “Friends” — and the Peacock’s enemies are scrambling already to figure out how they can thrive once Central Perk serves up its last latte.

As they put the finishing touches on their 2003-04 skeds, rival programmers — particularly at ABC, Fox and the WB — are paying particular attention to Thursday night. CBS now wins the race in total viewers, but NBC’s “Friends”-led sked still dominates with the all-important young auds.

But with Chandler & Co. finally set to call it quits in May, the Thursday landscape could be in for an extreme makeover.

“It’s a really key time,” says one veteran programmer. “Not only is ‘Friends’ going away, but it’s doing so with only 18 episodes (scheduled to air in the final season). There’s really some opportunity there.”

Competitors smell blood: Even if NBC hangs on to its Thursday demo lead without “Friends” — a real possibility, given the net’s historic strength on the night — simply making the race a lot closer could add millions to rivals’ bottom line.

Thursday is network TV’s biggest night, with more viewers tuning in the Big Six than on any other evening. Movie studios in particular pay a premium to reach young moviegoers on the night before big releases open.

What’s more, ABC and Fox generally do so poorly on Thursday that even modest gains would go a long way toward improving both nets’ overall fortunes. With Fox nipping at NBC’s heels in the demo derby, Thursday could even mean the difference between first and second place for the season.

As a result, the moves rival webs make next week could have a critical impact on their positioning in the coming post-Ross-and-Rachel world order.

The central dilemma for rival schedulers: Be aggressive on Thursdays now — and risk nine months of decimation from NBC’s still-mighty sked, as well as the Eye’s formidable lineup — or wait until September 2004 to pounce.

“You can plant your flag, but the question is, will you still have a flag left by the end of next year?” muses one exec. “Something that goes on in fall and fails for 35 weeks isn’t going to suddenly take off like a rocket after ‘Friends.’ “

Still, the early buzz indicates at least one net, and perhaps more, will choose to attack now.

ABC already has told advertisers it plans to have only a few reality hours on its sked this fall, in favor of moving to a 10- or 12-comedy schedule. With six of those comedies slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, that leaves plenty of room for laffers on Thursday.

Fox or the WB might be smart to sked urban-skewing comedies on Thursday night. After all, Fox did well for years by airing shows such as “Martin” and “Living Single” on Thursdays.

Both webs have several new or returning urban skeins that could fit well on Thursdays, including the WB’s Anthony Anderson half-hour and Fox’s Bernie Mac-Wanda Sykes combo.

Even CBS could shake things up on Thursdays — though not before fall 2004.

Net has no plans of moving “Survivor” this September. But if, a year from now, no other web has established a presence on Thursdays, it might make sense to shift “Survivor” and take a gamble with a new comedy Thursdays at 8.

Indeed, CBS has a history of not rolling over on Thursdays.

Not long ago, Eye chairman Leslie Moonves used to quip about his distaste for Friday mornings — since it meant facing the miserable numbers for the net’s Thursday lineup.

But by carefully attacking NBC — first with “Survivor,” then with “CSI” — CBS put to rest the notion that the Peacock couldn’t be touched on Thursday.

Still, the Nielsen graveyard is littered with the corpses of failed dramas and comedies felled by NBC’s Thursday juggernaut (R.I.P. “Nothing Sacred,” “Dinotopia” and “Action.”)

And with network TV dominated by month-to-month thinking, some industry wags doubt webs like ABC or Fox will take major chances on a night with so little immediate upside.

“I hope that somebody tries to get established on Thursday nights before ‘Friends’ goes away, but I doubt it will happen,” says one studio chief.

“The networks are still so focused on winning every sweep rather than having the patience and forethought that’s needed to win (on Thursday.)”

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