BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. February is Sweeps Month, crucial for television networks and stations when advertisers study the ratings to determine how much they're willing to pay for commercial time. So programmers desperately seeking viewers lard the schedule with specials, pitting the high class against the low brow, or as in this month, Anna Karenina versus The Osmonds. But the best entertainment by far this month has been the bare-knuckled battle for domination of Thursday night as On the Media's Tony Maciulis reports.
MAN: 28 days. 2 television networks. One fickle audience. The prize for the winner of Sweeps Month -- control of the largest cash machine TV offers. Thursday night. From this cubicle at the New York Post, TV reporters Don Kaplan serves as tribal council on Thursday's battle.
MAN: NBC has dominated that night in terms of ratings for almost the last 20 years, and they make a lot of money! So it, it's quite a coup for CBS to be trying to make some sort of an inroad and steal their viewers.
MAN: Cosby and Cheers in the 1980s. Seinfeld and now Friends. NBC has been unchallenged on Thursday since the dawn of Must-See-TV. But this February Friends confronted a powerful enemy in Survivor. [SURVIVOR MUSIC] The hit reality show attracted nearly 30 million viewers in its first season, enough to potentially knock NBC from its prime time pedestal. The stakes are high. Steve Grubs is the CEO of OMD, a group that buys advertising time slots for clients like Pepsico, Apple and Universal Studios. He explains the importance of prime time Thursday from an advertiser's perspective.
MAN: You've got a, a broad reach--; difficult to reach younger upscale demographics available there. If you're launching a new product; if you're launching a new creative execution; if you're trying to develop the Big Bang impact with - with advertisers -- then Thursday night is, is the best vehicle around right now outside of a handful of, of major network specials.
MAN: Must-See-TV created a virtual monopoly on ad dollars. 30 seconds on a new episode of Friends can cost as much as 700,000 dollars and sponsors pay gladly for the chance to catch young consumers before they make their weekend plans or spend their paychecks. NBC relies on Thursday night for most of its annual revenues, so the challenge from CBS was taken seriously. The network fired its entertainment president, boy wonder Garth Ancier, and replaced him with another boy wonder, the Today Show's Jeff Zucker. Zucker threw a curve ball with a Super-sized Friends and a mini Week-night version of Saturday Night Live. Don Kaplan of the New York Post gives the verdict.
MAN: I think a lot of people are busting out their VCR's and taping both. I think you've got an incredible amount of crossover.
MAN: In the end, the ratings stayed the same! NBC didn't lose any viewers and Survivor had the same audience it did last season. Jeff Zucker says this is a win for both networks.
MAN: We emerged from Thursday night in a terrific position and CBS turned on the lights on Thursday night and that's a great story for them, so-- I wouldn't begrudge anybody else their success -- especially if it doesn't come at our expense.
MAN: Because CBS and NBC are pitting blockbuster against blockbuster, the same sponsors are sinking money into both, essentially competing with themselves. Why not deliver a Must-See Wednesday instead? Media buyer Steve Grubs.
MAN: I don't think CBS is necessarily maximizing the audience potential of Survivor. If they had put it on Wednesday night at 9, or Wednesday night at 10, I think you'd probably see a stronger rating performance there.
MAN: But CBS has no plans to move Survivor to another night. The show will remain on Thursdays until April, and the network also plans to challenge NBC's other darling -- E.R. A new Thursday night drama hits the 10 o'clock hour on CBS in March. Jeff Zucker says he'll fight by developing reality shows for NBC -the only network slow to join the fad, and he will also try to create more smash hits like Will and Grace, Cheers and Friends. [LAUGHTER]
WOMAN: They just don't make 'em like that any more! You know? [LAUGHTER]
WOMAN: No, no they do but-- you just have to wait! [LAUGHTER]
MAN: The networks and their sponsors hope the wait won't be too long. In New York, I'm Tony Maciulis for On the Media.