Most ratings-showdown stories of the kind that fascinate TV executives and TV writers don't, and shouldn't, make a difference to the typical TV viewer. The fact that you don't give a hoot whether David Letterman has picked up half a point among 18-to-49-year-olds against Jay Leno is probably a sign that you have active interests, rewarding social contacts and, hopefully, a healthy sex life.
The imminent showdown between CBS's "Survivor: The Australian Outback" (89 p.m.) and NBC's Must-See TV lineup on Thursday nights, however, is that rare exception: a ratings fight that will actually amount to something other than whether Sumner Redstone ends up with a few more doubloons on his money pile and whether new NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker joins Garth Ancier and Jamie Tarses on bingo night in the TV Executives' Premature Retirement Home. What happens between CBS and NBC in February is not only going to change the form of prime-time TV in the future. It has, we just discovered, changed prime-time TV already.
Zucker announced plans for a small but significant change in the anti-"Survivor" lineup: "Friends" (88:30 p.m.) will be padded out to about 40 minutes, with the rest of the hour filled up with live "Saturday Night Live" skits. As a stopgap reaction, it's admirable in its quick-thinkingness Zucker's scarcely equipped his office with paper clips at this point even if it probably won't do any good.
"Friends" will take the same hit it was going to before the move, and there's always the risk those extra bloated minutes could hurt a show already on creative autopilot this season. Where the move might help somewhat is at 8:30, where "The Weber Show" (a.k.a. "Cursed," a.k.a. "The Steven Weber Show," a.k.a. "The Sweet Delusion That America's Dying to See Any Sitcom Starring a Former 'Wings' Star") currently holds the "hammock" spot: It's the show, between "Friends" and "Will and Grace," that you watch because your remote's broken, you worked a long day and you don't have to go to the bathroom yet. But adding the "SNL" material we're talking 20 minutes of comedy beyond the junk that "SNL" exiles to its last turgid half hour is a space-filling measure one step short of just adding a 20-minute "Dateline."
But more important, the move shows how, in the post-"Survivor" universe, the game is probably already up for prime-time programming as we have known it for the last several decades. (And if you think that's hyperbole, you should hear how entertainment execs and scriptwriters, with their lunches at Le Dome hanging in the balance, characterize it.) What Zucker is saying is that, in today's flux-afflicted TV business, nothing is or can be sacred; not NBC's venerable four-comedies-and-"ER" schedule, not the cast-in-stone 30-minute block of programming. When a cheaply made threat like "Survivor" can come out of nowhere to become the biggest threat in TV, you have to be nimble, and perhaps in ways that the old sitcom-and-drama system doesn't always allow.
I've already written that the "Survivor" and "Friends" battle is basically the Ragnarok of Old TV vs. New TV cheap, producer-driven, writerless reality series vs. expensive, star-driven scripted sitcom. If "Friends" can't hold the line, some of TV's dinosaurs could start getting fitted for their museum cases.
But even if Ross, Rachel, et al. survive, Zucker's move shows that prime-time has sufficiently been upended that even its biggest hits aren't immune from tinkering. Nor are its most basic assumptions e.g., that TV shows must be either 30 minutes or an hour long. (Remember that UPN idea of creating 15-minute sitcoms? It could yet come back.) If there's a writer's strike come next fall, all bets are off.
And if "Friends" gets hit bad, don't be surprised if it's changed further, even moved. (Sound ridiculous? When "Survivor" debuted last summer, ABC tried to smother it in the cradle by putting "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" against it. In scant weeks, "Millionaire" was gone.) It was for exactly such an environment that NBC brought in Zucker from the morning-TV world of "The Today Show," where you compete hard, react fast and as in "Today"'s early days you don't get embarrassed about putting a monkey on the air if it gets you viewers.
"Friends," alas, already had a monkey in the cast years ago. Anyone for a kangaroo?