Life after ‘Friends’ haunts NBC

<B>Midseason TV report:</B> Net down about 10% across key demos in midseason

HOLLYWOOD — It divorced itself quickly from “Coupling” and few viewers cared to enter its “Lyon’s Den,” but NBC still has enough in the tank to remain the odds-on favorite to capture the season.

After May, though, it could be running on fumes.

On the heels of a sluggish fall, the net of fading or soon-to-depart vets like “Friends,” “Frasier” and “The West Wing” has never looked more vulnerable in the “Must See TV” era.

CBS is breathing down its neck — both on Thursday and overall — and Fox could yet provide a challenge if “American Idol” returns hot.

Drama “Las Vegas” and comedies “Whoopi,” “Happy Family” and “Tracy Morgan” are nice additions to the NBC sked, but they’re hardly game-changers, a trend of sorts for the net in recent years (think “Crossing Jordan” and “Good Morning Miami”).

In fact, the net that loves to boast about its “quality shows” has produced only two buzzworthy skeins — “Law & Order” spinoff “Criminal Intent” and comedy “Scrubs” — in the past three seasons.

As it approaches midseason, NBC is down about 10% across the key demos of 18-49, 25-54 and 18-34, but it remains ahead of second-place CBS in the key 18-49 battle (4.1/11 vs. 3.8/10). Net enjoys an even more decided advantage if you look at regularly skedded programs only (4.4 vs. 3.8), according to Nielsen.

NBC will be counting a lot on unscripted programming to shore up some hours where dramas haven’t worked.

Net is highest on “The Apprentice,” an elimination-style contest in which candidates look to survive in Donald Trump’s corporate jungle. Peacock hopes this entry from “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett can draw an upscale aud that can help reinvigorate lead-out drama “West Wing.”

It takes over for “Ed,” which moves to Fridays at 9.

Here’s a look at NBC:

WHAT SMOKED: Monday has performed very well, as the net’s 5.2 rating in 18-49 on the night (up 11% vs. last year) ties CBS for the season lead. “Fear Factor” is up year-to-year, “Las Vegas” is a winning bet at 9 (No. 1 new drama in 18-49) and could improve with ABC’s “Monday Night Football” out of the way, and “Average Joe” ranks as the season’s No. 1 new program in 18-49.

Net’s Thursday lineup, although down and now not far ahead of CBS in 18-49, is home to four of the season’s top seven programs in the demo (“ER,” “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and “Scrubs”).

Tuesday also has been a bright spot, although the net is merely third and flat year-to-year. Move of “Law & Order: SVU” to the night has provided a strong 10 o’clock anchor, and “Whoopi,” “Happy Family” and “Tracy Morgan” are hanging in there even as “Frasier” is showing its age.

WHAT CHOKED: Biggest declines for NBC have come on Thursday (down 23% in 18-49) and Friday (down 26% but a solid second to ABC), with the latter night clearly feeling the loss of “Law & Order: SVU.” “Third Watch” is an adequate replacement at 10.

Elsewhere, second-year Sunday skein “American Dreams” looks shaky opposite meatier drama competish, and the Wednesday combo of “West Wing” and “Law & Order” has lost a step or two.

WHAT’S AHEAD: In addition to “The Apprentice,” second editions of reality skeins “Average Joe” and “The Restaurant” are on tap for the second half of the season.

On the comedy side, “Friends” should generate big buzz and ratings as it nears its series finale, and the comedy “Come to Papa,” described by some as “Seinfeld” with kids, likely will bow in March.

Net has no new dramas on tap, although “Crossing Jordan” returns from the inactive list to an hour yet to be announced.

Further down the road, net desperately needs to replenish its series bench with watercooler shows — and another “Law & Order” isn’t going to cut it. Keep an eye this spring on the net’s slate of new programs, as development prexy Kevin Reilly looks to work his magic on the NBC brand.

Reilly and entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker will need to pull some rabbits out of their hats or a “Friends”- and “Frasier”-free NBC could be on a quick downward slide.

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