By Ronald Grover Jeff Zucker no doubt thought it was funny at the time. Speaking before a gathering of TV critics last year, the NBC honcho joshed that the network had tentatively decided to call the Friends spin-off starring Matt LeBlanc Hey, Where Did Everyone Go?. Now, with the stakes higher than ever for NBC, the folks at the network owned by General Electric (GE) are praying there wasn't a bit of truth in Zucker's wit.
Of course, nobody expects Joey -- the new show's actual name -- to be another Friends. The just-departed sitcom had a spectacular 10-year run as the anchor of NBC's Thursday prime-time schedule, making that night the most profitable in TV Land. And more often than not, spin-offs don't succeed. Even Frasier, which had an 11-year life, wasn't as much of a hit as Cheers, its parent show. Cheers, also on the air for 11 years, had 7 finishes in the top 10. Frasier, by contrast, had 2, according ad-buying firm Horizon Media.
70% SOLUTION? That isn't stopping NBC from preparing a massive promotional campaign to give LeBlanc and his show a fighting chance to buck the trend. John Miller, co-president of NBC's in-house ad agency, says the network will pull out all the stops, plastering ads for Joey on the walls of its Universal theme parks in Orlando and Los Angeles, running wall-to-wall commercials during the Olympics, and even relying on sister cable channels Bravo and USA for some added push.
Had NBC gone to outside advertising to launch its Thursday night hopeful, this kind of ad blitz would have cost about $10 million. If that isn't a record, it comes awfully darn close. "We really think Joey has a chance," says Miller. "It's a very important show for us."
That would be an understatement. Last year, shows in the 8-11 p.m. Thursday time slot sent an estimated $35 million a night into NBC's coffers. Friends alone sold its 30-second ads for around $473,500 each, the highest rate among regularly scheduled programs. Can Joey reach those levels? Nope. Ad buyers say a rate of around $400,000, perhaps lower, is more likely. The buyers say privately they're hoping that Joey will lure in about 70% of the Friends audience -- and more important, the hot 18-49 demo group that advertisers like. NBC isn't discussing its projections.
COVER TO COVER. So, can Joey do 70% as well as Friends? Maybe. Variety, after reviewing the show, said it has potential. Still, the entertainment bible acknowledges that Joey won't get the numbers Monica and the gang piled up, which will likely cut heavily into the Peacock network's position as No. 1 with younger viewers.
Taking no chances, NBC has also been playing ads in more than 6,500 movie screens for much of the summer, making sure to get them in front of such blockbusters as Spider-Man 2, I, Robot, and The Bourne Supremacy. You want eyeballs? That's eyeballs. And if you happen to be in the nation's five largest TV markets -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadephia, and San Francisco -- you're also going to see LeBlanc grinning at you from billboards, the sides of buses, and at subway stops for the next few weeks.
Such firepower is great for opening a show, and to make sure Joey is clear of the competition, NBC is debuting it on Sept. 9, a week ahead of CBS (VIA), its biggest competition for the night. Moreover, NBC says it has conducted consumer research that shows Joey has a sky-high "want to see factor," says Miller. No suprise, given that Joey's hyperkinetic publicity staff has gotten LeBlanc on the cover of everything from TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly to Ladies' Home Journal.
SUPPORTING CAST. All of this may not be enough. Critics have given the pilot decent reviews. But the producers yanked Joey's first love interest, Ashley Scott, after the pilot and replaced her with blond bombshell Andrea Anders, who played one of the statuesque simpletons in the Paramount flop The Stepford Wives. Joey also has some of the same folks who made the parent show funny -- producer Kevin S. Bright and producer/writers Scott Silveri and Shana Goldberg-Meehan. On the other hand, it's missing the two Friends' creators, David Crane and Marta Kaufman.
Other networks smell blood. For the first time in years, all of them are beefing up their entries in the Thursday 8 p.m. derby. To go after the younger viewers, Fox (NWS) has moved over its hot teen drama The OC from Wednesday nights, while CBS returns with yet another of its still-potent installments of Survivor.
Even ABC (DIS) may make noise, thanks to its out-of-nowhere reality hit Extreme Makeover. "We believe that NBC will remain competitive on Thursday night," says Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. "But we also believe that they will be down significantly from where they were with Friends."
LOVELORN. My best guess is Joey does well enough. But will that be good enough to lift the 8:30 show, Will & Grace, which finished 17th last year? Maybe. The good news for NBC is that at 9 p.m. it has the second season of Donald Trump's The Apprentice. According to Horizon Media ratings guru Brad Adgate, reality shows like American Idol, Survivor, and The Bachelor all played better in their second seasons.
I have to admit I'm rooting for Joey and, more important, for Matt LeBlanc. He was the underappreciated Friend, the one who ended the show without a love interest. There's no doubt that with all the build-up NBC is giving Joey and the residual curiousity from Friends' fans, the show will get off to a good start ratings-wise. And there's no denying that LeBlanc can be pretty darn funny.
But nobody will be laughing if a month after Joey's debut, Zucker is again asking "hey, where did everyone go?" -- and meaning it. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek