Frasier Vs. "Stone Cold" Steve? Let's Get It On!

Rivals challenge NBC's faltering lock on Thursday nights

For years, few things in TV Land have been as certain as NBC on Thursday nights. Starting with The Cosby Show in 1984, the network has ruled prime time's most prime night. But since Jerry Seinfeld and his not-so-merry band departed, NBC is slowly beginning to lose its grip on Thursdays. Even those hardworking doctors on ER can't seem to reverse the decline.

You might say, "Well, it's only one night." But on Thursday, NBC generates no less than 38% of its overall network revenues, selling ads to movie studios and other sponsors eager to prime consumers for the weekend. So when viewership drops 16% on Thursday as it did for NBC last year, executives pay attention.

So do rivals. Last year's dip gave many--particularly upstart networks UPN and the WB--hope that they could snatch some share this season. So UPN will be offering two hours of pro wrestling, starting at 8 p.m. and running through the Seinfeld slot now occupied by Frasier on NBC. The WB is moving its one-hour drama Charmed, which stars Beverly Hills 90210 alumna Shannen Doherty as a youngish witch, from Wednesday night, where it was the network's second-rated show among women 18 to 34. ABC is putting up an hour-long show about twentysomething college friends from Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson. And CBS is retooling once-popular Chicago Hope by bringing back its onetime star Mandy Patinkin, and creator David E. Kelley, in hopes of siphoning off some of Frasier's older audience.

Each has a different target audience, but all threaten to chip away at the NBC lead. As defense, NBC will have to depend again on Kelsey Grammer and Frasier. The show, already in its seventh season, ended last season with ratings 26% below Seinfeld, which commanded a regular audience of 21 million. Frasier's is closer to 15 million. And NBC is counting on a new show following Frasier to carry viewers into the ER hour. But it would seem like a long shot. The show, Stark Raving Mad, is a sitcom vehicle for Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.), now a grown-up and neurotic literary agent.

No one is predicting that NBC is in danger of losing its Thursday night ratings lead altogether this season. But there are clear signs of potentially big trouble ahead: Despite a 5% increase in overall advertising sales for the coming NBC season, to $2.2 billion, advertising sales on Thursday night were flat, say insiders.

While much of the new Thursday programming is aimed at young women viewers, the biggest fight this season may be for males. They abandoned NBC in greater numbers than women last year. Fox is moving its animated show Family Guy from Sundays and adding its heavily promoted sitcom, Action, which spoofs the antics of an egomaniacal movie producer. UPN is investing heavily to promote its two-hour wrestling block, and will spend an estimated $4 million to plaster the sides of buildings with gargantuan images of wrestlers like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and female wrestler Chyna.

FIRST AID. NBC and its new team headed by longtime cable executive Scott Sassa are scrambling. Friends, in the 8 o'clock slot, remains a big draw. But to keep viewers tuned in until Frasier they're throwing extra efforts into Jesse, a sitcom returning at 8:30. The show has been assigned three new writers. Meanwhile, ER co-creator John Wells is returning after two years spent working on other projects. The cast has been overhauled and the medical show will have recurring guest stars Alan Alda and Rebecca DeMornay. And departed heartthrob George Clooney may show up for the November sweeps, too.

"Last year was not a great one for ER or for Thursday nights," says NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier, "but we're feeling pretty good about the changes that we're making. And no matter what the other guys are saying, this is still the No. 1 night and the No. 1 lineup on television." But these are different times for network television, and NBC's competitors are betting that its Thursday night lineup is already past its prime.

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