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Hot slot in knot

'Schwartz' tries unfriendly post-'Friends' spot

The original title to last season’s offering said it all: “Cursed.”

Series creators used to breathlessly lobby for a crack at NBC’s vaunted Thursday 8:30 p.m. timeslot. It was nestled between “Friends” and “Will & Grace” (and, before the latter came along, “Seinfeld”), and securing it was like inheriting prime beachfront property.

But a string of uninspiring sitcoms — each one a more cynical attempt than the last to emulate the hip, young appeal of “Friends” — instead has turned the time period into TV’s highest-rated no-man’s-land.

And with CBS’ “Survivor” now posing a serious challenge to NBC’s dominance in the 8 p.m. hour, the post-“Friends” slot may finally have lost its cachet.

“I’m the one who described it as ‘walk-the-dog time,’ ” said NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker. “We have only ourselves to blame for giving people that impression. We put a few dogs in there, so it’s our own fault.”

NBC has had six years to cultivate a new hit behind “Friends” — but every attempt failed. The time period’s hall of shame includes entries such as “The Single Guy,” “Boston Common,” “Union Square,” “Jesse” and “The Weber Show” (the show formerly known as “Cursed”).

“There seems to be a sameness to the attempts,” said one producer. “I believe the time period could still be a blessing, not a curse, if you’ve got the goods.”

Engel gets ‘Inside’

Stephen Engel is the latest scribe-producer to land the most dangerous job in TV — or, at least, at NBC. His frosh sitcom “Inside Schwartz,” starring Breckin Meyer as a lovelorn sports junkie, takes on the Thursday 8:30 slot beginning Sept. 20.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Engel said. “There’s no way to come in under the radar. You either hit right away, or you’re dead in the water.”

NBC execs have always argued that the best shows will win the sweet slot, regardless of ownership. But in the past, the Peacock’s critics have blamed the net for letting other factors besides quality dictate what ends up in the post-“Friends” half-hour.

Turns out winning the timeslot lotto isn’t as easy as it looks. More often than not, the plum 8:30 spot has gone to either an NBC Studios show or an entry from Warner Bros. TV and “Friends” producer Bright/Kauffman/Crane (which had the leverage to secure the post-“Friends” slot).

NBC wants it all

The success of NBC Studios’ “Will & Grace” has given the Peacock even more reason to believe it can have the best of both worlds.

After all, having a hit primetime series is great. Owning that primetime series — and reaping its eventual backend rewards — is even better.

But inhouse and shared productions gradually have become the norm at the nets. “Inside Schwartz,” for example, is produced by 20th Century Fox TV and NBC Studios.

No one really questions whether NBC favors lesser-quality inhouse shows anymore — after all, the webs own a stake in virtually all of their pilots.

But place too much emphasis on ownership, and you’ll still end up with “Union Square.”

“On Thursday, as long as that can generate any significant audience, the network is going to focus heavily on ownership,” one exec said. “I think they were somewhat blinded by greed.”

“Friends,” which debuted between “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” in fall 1994, was the slot’s last success story. When the laffer moved up the following fall to kick off the night, the Peacock’s 8:30 Thursday dried up.

Expectations hurt

“Friends” exec producer David Crane believes expectations were too high for another “Friends”-like hit in the time period.

As a result, shows that might have gotten a fair shake on another night quickly were dismissed as subpar on Thursdays, he said.

“The bar is very high,” Crane said. “I like ‘Jesse’ (which Bright/Kauffman/Crane also produced), and had we been on a different night, the press may have been gentler and expectations not so brutally high.”

Engel worries viewers have come to expect lower-caliber fare between “Friends” and “Will & Grace.”

“After a while, if you feed people filler, they’ll eat elsewhere,” he said. “I think people have developed a certain viewing pattern. To some extent, even if you put an original ‘Friends’ behind ‘Friends,’ it would drop.”

At the same time, Engel’s “Schwartz” still is guaranteed heavy viewer sampling. Year after year, the sitcom airing post-“Friends” winds up as one of the top-rated new comedies of the season.

Holding auds key

Even the widely panned “Union Square” ended the 1997-98 season in Nielsen’s top 10. For shows airing Thursday at 8:30, the rating isn’t as important as is how well it holds on to the “Friends” audience.

“If I drop from a 25 to a 15 share, I think ‘Spy TV’ is hot on my heels waiting to come in,” Engel said. “For me, ‘Fear Factor’ means much more than a reality show that can take my place.”

Adding to Engel’s pressure, “Inside Schwartz” may be the Peacock’s last chance at developing a post- “Friends” hit.

Should this be “Friends’ ” final season, NBC’s short list of replacements would include “Schwartz” and fellow freshman “Scrubs,” should they survive their first seasons, or “Just Shoot Me.”

Zucker said he’ll give “Inside Schwartz” time to attract the fickle “Friends” crowd. The net has started heavily promoting the show and is banking on turning Meyer into a major TV star.

“It will be interesting to see whether it’s just too late (and the time period) is tainted forever, or whether people will respond,” Engel said. “I can deliver the strongest show I can produce and hope people like it.”

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