Executives at CBS call it a Rolaids moment. They decided, about five seasons ago, to put the young hit "Survivor" on Thursday nights to go toe-to-toe with one of the most powerful shows on TV, NBC's smash sitcom "Friends."
Little did they know at the time, but that move would mark the beginning of the end of dominance on Thursdays for NBC Universal's NBC, which had been on top of the broadcast heap for two decades on that all-important night.
Viacom's CBS followed up on its "Survivor" move by packing the night with other shows that audiences flocked to and advertisers embraced. With the addition of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the highest-rated show on TV, and "Without a Trace," CBS saw triple-digit increases in its prime-time ratings among the marketer-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. CBS now tops NBC in that demo on Thursdays, as well as ruling the night overall.
"It's almost a complete reversal of fortune," says Kelly Kahl, CBS exec VP-scheduling and program planning. "It was symbolic to come in on one of the nights where we'd been the weakest and slay Goliath."
"For a long time, NBC had it sewn up, and everybody else coveted that position," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research integration at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative, New York.
In the world of network TV, the fight for viewers and ad dollars is constant. But not all nights are created equal. As the upfront buying season approaches, perhaps no other spot is as closely scrutinized as Thursday. It's not the most-watched night of TV-that's Sunday-but it is a pivotal evening for such marketers as Hollywood's film studios, consumer electronics, retailers, automakers and package-goods marketers, all competing for weekend leisure and shopping dollars.
A number of blue-chip marketers not only buy in traditional ad pods on Thursdays, but they also integrate their brands into the well-watched content, particularly the "Survivor" franchise and NBC's "The Apprentice." Record labels and artists have flocked to Fox's "The O.C." to help boost new releases.
$2.7 BILLION PIE
At stake for the six networks is some $2.7 billion that advertisers spent on Thursday nights last year, slightly topping what they forked over on Sundays, according to TNS Media Intelligence. NBC took in the lion's share of the pot, with $1.2 billion. CBS, not surprisingly, showed the biggest gain from year to year and earned the second-largest sum for the night. Media buyers and advertisers are frustrated that network TV in general doesn't reach the same number of eyeballs that it once did. But Thursday nights remain a must-buy.
"We buy a mix, from `Survivor' to `The O.C.' to `Without a Trace,' " says Suzanne Cole, senior VP-media at NBC Universal's Universal Pictures. "Because there are more places to go, it's a cost consideration, but it also gives us a lot of options."
She likes the night because there are fanatical viewers who are more likely to watch when the programs air rather than record them and watch later. "We need people to watch on Thursdays because we're building toward Friday," Ms. Cole says. "That's where our transaction is." Simply put: Friday is movie night, and time-shifting a Thursday show for viewing on Sunday would defeat the purpose of advertising on it.
What remains to be seen is how the networks will program that night going forward. Can CBS hold onto its prime position, or can NBC regain some of its lost ground? Can the other networks make more of a dent?
CBS brass already have preached stability for the night, and the network is unlikely to change its lineup. NBC will try mightily to improve its lot, while Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, having turned itself around on other nights this season, is taking the slow-build approach. News Corp.'s Fox, pleased with its counterprogramming move of "The O.C." at 8 p.m. (ET), will look anew for a 9 p.m. hit. Time Warner's WB network and Viacom's UPN likely will keep programming to niches.
ABC could be "the real game changer," Ms. Koerner says. "They have some place-holder programming there now, and they need something strong, more water-cooler, buzz-generating."
The boldest move-and some think dumbest-would be to schedule "Desperate Housewives" on Thursdays. It would certainly shake things up, but media buyers say it's not likely to happen because ABC has created an appointment night on Sunday with the soapy drama and won't disturb that lineup.
NBC is trailing CBS in the vital 18-49 demographic in time periods where it once won handily. Some recent figures show that "CSI" pulled in 28.22 million viewers in the 18-49 demo, while "The Apprentice" had 13.84 million in head-to-head competition. NBC executives, while acknowledging the ratings gap, emphasize that their audience is more upscale on the night.
"It's a flagship night," says Kevin Reilly, NBC Entertainment president, "and it remains very important for us from a branding perspective and a business perspective."
In fact, NBC last year topped CBS in ad revenue on Thursday, despite CBS's ratings lead, due in part to NBC's desirable upscale audience.
NBC is still trying to recover from the loss a year ago of "Friends," which propped up the night for more than a decade. Its offshoot, "Joey," regularly gets trounced by CBS' "Survivor."
WENT ALONG FOR THE RIDE
For years, NBC had four back-to-back comedies on the night, starting at 8 p.m. Audiences stayed with the network, says Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat. "People used to go along for the ride," Ms. Brill says, "but when CBS put `Survivor' on that night, it became a catalyst."
Fox has traditionally been strong in the younger demos, with shows like "American Idol" and "The Simpsons." The network slotted "The O.C." on Thursdays this season in an attempt to grab some of those viewers who might not be interested in "Joey" or "Survivor."
"We don't feel like we're anywhere near mission accomplished, but we're in the game from 8 to 9," says Preston Beckman, exec VP-strategic program planning at Fox. "We need to make sure `The O.C.' comes back strong and that we find a companion for it."
"The O.C." is particularly strong with 12-to-34-year-old females and has doubled the network's time period rating from the year before. It's all but assured to return to its slot next season, with the 9 p.m. show still to be decided.
Mr. Beckman says he's looking for "something a little broader" than the network has had in that period in the recent past and "something a little less serialized." He's not looking to go head-to-head with CBS with a "CSI" clone but is considering a show that would be palatable to those viewers.
Whatever schedules emerge, the night will remain a key piece of networks' overall strategy.
"Viewers have come to expect something big," Mr. Kahl says. "It's a great night to schedule shows that can make some real noise."
"Joey" will return but NBC wants "a couple of brand drivers," says Kevin Kelly, entertainment president. Will some combo of Trump and Stewart fit the bill?