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Thursday Night Fights: No Survivors Here

This was supposed to be The Big One, the mother of all heavyweight bouts. Think Ali vs. Frazier. Patton vs. Rommel. Brown vs. Board of Education. 1960s Celtics vs. 1980s Lakers. Shirts vs. skins.

Think about them all. And then multiply it by ten. Because this pier-six brawl was going to make those stand-offs look like naptime down at the local preschool.

Survivor vs. Friends -- the Rumble for the Ratings. The Duel over the Dial. The Punchfest in Prime Time.

In the red corner, you have Survivor: The Australian Outback, the sequel to last summer's TV phenomenon. Airlifted into a new exotic locale and restocked with much more attractive contestants, this second serving of Survivor promises to stomp any show in its path to Nielsen supremacy -- the widow-maker of the reality-programming genre.

And in the blue corner, there's Friends, the aging-but-game ratings champion. Armed with the kind of promotional muscle that Joseph Goebbels would envy, Friends underwent a rigorous training regimen to bulk itself up by an astonishing 10 minutes. The result? A muscular, mean show-killing machine that will defend NBC's Thursday night turf like a cornered wolverine protects her pups.

Survivor vs. Friends -- Thunderdome-style! Two shows enter. One show leaves. If only they decided presidential elections this way.

So after the first two rounds, which show can claim victory? Both, actually. Just as both Survivor and Friends can be considered the loser in this head-to-head contest -- though not losing as badly as the other shows that occupy the Thursdays-at-eight time slot.

In week one, Survivor scored a 17.3 rating, which translates to about 29 million viewers. Friends tallied a 14.2 rating, or 22 million viewers. And even a product of the California public school system can tell you that 29 is greater than 22. Those numbers essentially held up for week two.

But before you send a condolence card to the Friends widow, NBC would like to point out that its numbers in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic -- the group that appeals to advertisers the way winos go for Thunderbird -- are extremely comparable to Survivor's, thank you very much. And ratings for Friends haven't dropped off any since Survivor moved into the neighborhood. In fact, the bloated Friends episode that went up against Survivor for the first time actually posted a higher number than the show's season-to-date average.

Which means that viewers are flocking to CBS at the expense of Gilmore Girls, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, WWF Smackdown and whatever caught-on-tape abomination Fox has cobbled together this week. It's as if Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield got together for a boxing match and wound up joining forces to beat the tar out of a couple of people sitting ringside.

Which could happen at a Tyson fight, come to think of it.

Not that CBS and NBC should be lighting victory cigars with charred copies of TV Guide. The current hoo-ha over the Survivor-Friends showdown has only distracted people from noticing some major problems waiting in the wings for both shows.

Friends' troubles have been brewing for a while. It passed the freshness date for sitcoms long ago, the once-beautiful cast now looks desiccated or bored or a combination of both, and there are just so many variations on the "Chandler and Monica have a comical misunderstanding" theme that you can pull off in a season or two. To top it off, the show hasn't changed or evolved since it hit the airwaves in 1994. And as charming as a cadre of aimless twentysomethings who spend all their time with one another may seem in season one, it becomes kind of dreary and sad once they log a few more years on the odometer.

And consider this: facing their gravest ratings challenge since going head to head against Living Single, how do the creative forces behind Friends respond? By tacking on another 10 minutes -- four, really, after you subtract the commercials -- of sex jokes.

(It's also a testament to Friends' overrated impact on NBC's prime time fortunes that the only show to ever benefit from the ratings lead-in has been 20 minutes of sketch comedy from a 26-year-old variety program. If nothing else, the success of the Saturday Night Live filler on Thursday nights should convince the network to take any executives in charge of developing sitcoms for the past five years and exile them to the promotions department of NBCi. Lord knows, they can't do any more damage there.)

As for Survivor, things seem to be going great now. Enthusiasm hasn't waned since the summer, the show battles ER for the top spot in the weekly ratings, and CBS has ordered enough installments to carry us through the waning days of the Bush administration.

But fortunes can change quickly when you're banking on public sentiment for your success. And if you want any proof how TV networks can not only kill the golden goose, but bludgeon it, gut it, and melt it down to lead, all you have to do is turn your gaze to another Thursday night ratings loser -- ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

No one could have made a statement like that a year ago. Like a feudal king, Millionaire ruled the prime time universe, single-handedly reviving a network's fortunes and striking fear into the heart of rival programmers. It didn't matter when it was on -- people tuned in to watch Millionaire. They talked about Millionaire. They even dressed like Millionaire's Regis Philbin. For a time, it seemed, the sun wouldn't come up in the morning without an OK first from Regis.

ABC executives did what anybody would do in their place -- what you would do if you were in charge of a TV network with one hit show and nothing but a lot of offal starring Geena Davis on deck. They stuck Millionaire on four nights a week and muttered a hasty prayer that the American public wouldn't get too bored with the show.

Unfortunately, the American public did get bored -- they got bored so fast, it may have broken the sound barrier. And, like any sentence that contains offal and Geena Davis in close proximity, the results were not pretty.

Millionaire's ratings are off 26 percent from last year. And the viewers fleeing ABC in droves are the young, demographically appealing ones; the average age of ABC's viewers has climbed to 46.1 years, up nearly five years from where it was before the Millionaire glut hit. What's more, Millionaire's inability to launch other shows has Friends looking like a kingmaker -- not good news for a network that hasn't debuted a hit new sitcom or drama since the four-years-old-and-fading-fast Dharma & Greg.

And Thursday nights? Don't ask. Millionaire, which airs at 9 p.m., was the fifth-highest-rated show on Thursdays before Survivor landed. The next week, it fell to 19th overall -- better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but not the kind of numbers you like to see for your flagship show. It means the viewers watching Survivor and Friends are sticking around to watch CSI and Will & Grace, respectively, instead of flipping the dial to watch Regis stump shut-ins and housewives.

Make no mistake: Millionaire's producers are in full panic mode. In a transparent and admitted attempt to bolster interest in the show, they've started boosting the jackpots whenever someone fails to hit the million-dollar threshold. They've conjured up gimmicky theme programs and even invited celebrities on air to show off their knowledge -- or lack of same. There's a reason, after all, that Rosie O'Donnell is hosting a talk show instead of charting the human genome. This week, musicians get their turn in the hot seat, finally answering a question that has plagued mankind for generations -- just how much does Metallica's Lars Ulrich known about obscure sports trivia?

Millionaire, it seems, is about to run out of lifelines.

That's worth remembering as Survivor bestrides the prime time landscape like a khaki-clad Colossus. Jeff Probst and his band of merry publicity-seekers are living high on the hog now but will people still tuning in by Survivor IV: Kuala Lumpur or Survivor V: the No. 7 Train to Queens?

Still, it's funny -- with all this jawing about Survivor taking on Friends, who would have thought that it would be Regis that would wind up voted off the island first?


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