Must-See TV rematch

Now that the major networks have released their fall 2001 schedules, all it takes is a brief glance at the Thursday night brackets to realize this year’s hottest rivalry–CBS’ Survivor and CSI vs. NBC’s Must-See TV lineup–will ignite yet again come October.

CBS appears to be riding a wave of confidence following this season’s consistent victory over NBC’s Thursday night sitcoms. Survivor scored on average 10 million more viewers than Friends per week, partly due in part to several Friends reruns in March, according to Nielsen Media Research. As a result, the Eye Network is unflinchingly pitting this fall Survivor and CSI against NBC’s Friends, Will & Grace, Just Shoot Me and the new sitcom Inside Schwartz.

CBS’ decision to keep the Thursday night battle alive has nothing to do with a rivalry with NBC, but has everything to do with constantly improving that night’s ratings, said CBS publicist Dana McClintock.

“We’re shooting for Thursday nights to not be considered ‘bowling night’ at CBS, as it’s been considered in the past,” he said. “We want to increase our viewership on that night–something we’ve accomplished dramatically this year so far.”

In addition to increasing viewership, CBS and NBC are looking to increase advertising revenues this fall. If they can, of course, remains to be seen, but if the spring 2001 advertising payouts are repeated, NBC could find themselves beneath CBS on the revenue-generating totem pole. Ad rates for Friends this spring actually dropped moderately following the February sweeps, which saw Survivor well ahead in the ratings. Conversely, CBS received a cool $12 million apiece from each of its nine core sponsors, including, Bud Light, Cingular, Doritos, Mountain Dew, Pontiac Aztek, Target and Visa.

CBS’ McClintock understands the need to increase the network’s Thursday night bottom line, pointing out that-despite the sheer entertainment value of its shows-in the end, money matters.

“[Thursday’s] a crucial night financially,” McClintock said. “We’ve increased viewership in our key demographic on Thursdays by triple, so we’re excited not only about Survivor and CSI next fall, but also the new drama The Agency, which will follow those shows at 10 p.m.”

And herein lies NBC’s ace in the hole: the 10 p.m. slot. ER continues to be a ratings juggernaut-the highest-rated drama on TV-balancing out the CBS-NBC rivalry this spring.

“While Survivor certainly has helped improve CBS’ ratings, NBC continues to dominate Thursday nights,” NBC spokesman Mike Nelson said.

While both networks sound clearly confident in their Thursday night lineups this fall, a hidden threat does exist to both: Fox’s Temptation Island 2, which will air Thursdays at 9 p.m., against CBS’ CSI and NBC’s Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me. Witnessing the success a reality show has had against NBC’s Must-See TV gang, Fox president of entertainment Gail Berman told The Hollywood Reporter that it’s time for her network to get aggressive. Fox attracted only 3.9 million viewers on Thursday nights.

“We’re going to be bold,” she said.