‘Friends’ or foe? ‘Survivor’ faces off

It was to be a classic television dogfight. NBC’s heavyweight “Friends,” which, along with others of the Must-See TV lineup, had owned Thursday nights on television for the last decade, was faced with the biggest challenge of its eight years. CBS’ “Survivor,” the biggest success story of 2000 and the brainchild of producer Mark Burnett, spawned a sequel that promised to resurrect its ratings juggernaut, landing smack dab on television’s biggest and most popular night.

What was NBC to do? Move its six-star wonderkid out of the path of danger and leave new Thursday staple “Will ‘ Grace” in the 9:00 p.m. slot? Perhaps this would have been a safer move for the Peacock, but instead it relied on its Goliath ratings and the power of a decade to expand “Friends” by 10 minutes and then adding 20 minutes of material from one of its other old standbys, “Saturday Night Live.”

But now, as television advances into the home stretch of the 2000-2001 season, “Survivor II” has been proclaimed the victor week after week, and NBC is showing signs of age. With “Friends” finally beginning to lose steam, and “Saturday Night Live” a beaten and dead horse, NBC now has little choice but to make some serious changes or lose its most powerful night to a dinosaur network-turned-powerhouse.

What happened to “Friends?” The nation’s favorite sitcom, whose ratings popularity has increased in direct proportion to its age and quality. The show, which began as a six-person character foil, has developed steadily with wittier writers and funnier episodes. But the show’s main enemy has become time, and the fact that in TV land, nothing lasts forever. The Monica-Chandler romance has been exhausted and milked of all of its comedic brilliance, having been dragged out for three seasons now as the spotlight storyline. Ross’ neuroticism and Rachel’s quirkiness, once cute and then hilarious, are now tired and downright annoying. Joey’s dumb-guy charm and Phoebe’s ditzy appeal are beginning to grow repetitive and desperate. And the fact that the show has been virtually ignored by Emmy doesn’t help too much either.

“Friends” is in need of a massive overhaul, the most obvious sign being that it now relies on big-name guest stars (like Bruce Willis, Reese Witherspoon and Susan Sarandon) and comically appealing characters from the past (like Hank Azaria’s David) to bring in the ratings, instead of fresh scripts and new adventures for its six stars. “Survivor II” has struck at just the right time: when the scripts aren’t fresh, the characters just aren’t funny anymore, Emmy is starting to turn its back completely and viewers are sick of the media circus that has engulfed the “Friends” sextet and their salaries for too long.

But instead of moving “Friends” out of danger and reworking it, NBC may be signing the show’s death warrant. The addition of 10 more minutes, now making the show run from 8:00-8:40 p.m. on Thursday evenings, is a foolish move for two reasons. First, expanding a sitcom beyond its 30-minute realm is a tried-and-false maneuver. The formula has always relied on explosive and rapid fire comedy to tell a story and then tie up loose ends or create a cliffhanger in the span of a mere half hour. The extra 10 minutes seem like a waste and are only dragging out the show. Secondly, the 40 minutes leave an extra 20 with which to segue “Friends” into the Emmy-winning and popular “Will ‘ Grace” at 9 p.m.

What does NBC do? Does it keep a half an hour slot with which to test drive new potential in a slot they know will receive some viewer response? No. It limits itself to 20 minutes of down time, which it fills with cutting room-worthy sketches from one of its most aged and tired staples. “Saturday Night Live” is already on its last legs, having lost the fantastic Cheri Oteri and gained little else in the way of talent. Why not let it die in its original time slot, where it has a prayer of survival left, instead of infecting other parts of the lineup with it?

The decisions NBC makes in the coming months will determine its future for the next decade in television. ABC saw its own decline, so it planned a major overhaul of its sitcoms and introduced “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” which, despite a cheap thrill appeal, still has appeal. FOX keeps its ship afloat by constantly pushing the envelope with edgier fare while revamping and improving its standbys. The WB network has gotten a foothold of the teen market, and even underdog UPN is trying fresh ideas in an effort to change its image. CBS has become the latest network to see that an improvement was needed, and an edge needed to be gained, and to go with it. If NBC fails to fall in line, the empire it spent most of the 1990s building will crumble before its eyes.

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