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Thursday Night TV Illustrates, Sadly, That Networks Are Willing to Sacrifice Their Best

September 20, 2009

Thursday night primetime programming has always been a hotspot. From NBC’s fantastic two-hour late eighties block of The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court to other Thursday classics Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier, every network has wanted a piece of the Peacock’s Thursday monopoly.

Unfortunately, before the days of DVR, choices had to be made. When Survivor burst on the scene, NBC saw its stalwart comedy lineup challenged for the first time by a plucky reality-based game show featuring bikini-clad bartenders struggling to survive. Survivor is widely hailed as one of the forefathers of reality television, and CBS took a major chance putting it up against the sitcom juggernauts — a chance that paid off. Suddenly, Thursday night wasn’t just a supremely entertaining night of TV; it also forced a decision. You can only watch one program at a time. Make your pick.

When Survivor, facing off against Friends, began to show CBS it might be possible to pull chop up the massive Thursday night audience and get a piece of the action, Thursday night slowly began to become a battleground for your eyeballs as the networks seemed to say “Hey, you’re watching TV on Thursdays, and we know that…why don’t you watch this? We’d love to find out if you like it better than those shows you’ve been watching for a couple of years now.”

Never mind that Monday through Wednesday nights were up for grabs for anyone who wanted to put a solid evening of programming together. It was all about besting the competitor. In the quest for ratings, the irony had become that the ratings became secondary to a network pissing contest of one-upmanship.

Fast forward to 2009. Technology is stronger than ever before. Digital Video Recorders allow us to tape two programs at once, a feat once only relegated to the one kid you knew in high school whose parents had more than one VCR. Finally, the electronic world had caught up to the Thursday night dilemma: you can now tape two of Thursday’s great tentpole shows at once, thereby being able to enjoy them both.. Problem solved.

Not really. It can’t be that easy.

By now, in 2009, Fox and ABC also want a part of the Thursday night love. After all, it only matters if you win Thursday. Who wants big numbers on a — yuk — Tuesday?

This is why we find ourselves in a situation like we do currently, with this fall’s TV season. You’re gonna need a couple more DVRs if you want to see the week’s best TV. Let’s look at the lineup.

NBC: While it has a penchant to go for broad comedy, The Office season premiere was incredibly clever and well written; Parks & Recreation looks to be abandoning the serialized season of last year for a more “one-off” approach, which should work better for Poehler & Company. Community, if you haven’t noticed, is getting a lot of NBC’s attention right now, and 30 Rock should be back any week now.

CBS: Say what you will about Survivor if you’re a reality programming hater, but the island game show has turned out some incredibly interesting seasons over its run, and the original CSI, on right after, has lured Laurence Fishburne in William Petersen’s absence, which is working. Overall, CBS is great comfort food with proven hits on Thursdays.

ABC: The network is putting a lot of chips on FlashForward, which is purported to be the next Lost. It’s the one show this season that you likely won’t want to miss because you’ll miss being in on the ground floor if it’s a huge and labyrinthine hit.

FOX: Here’s the most egregious error made currently on Thursdays — Fox, who had a huge hit on their hands with Fringe on Tuesdays, has decided to move it to the Thursday night party, where it’s going to inevitably lose some viewers. And that’s sad, because Fringe’s nutjob science is interesting, cool and funny. It’s X-Files without the persistent alien conspiracy bit, and arguably last season’s best new show.

So there you have it. Much of the best stuff of the week, all against one another. Sad, really — it’s a given that some of these shows are going to fail in the new mix. And each is something which could own any other night of the week. Each of these networks is offering up its favorite son as the sacrificial lamb. And that’s why there’s nothing to watch on Wednesday night.

What do you think? What’s your Thursday night plan this fall? Any recommendations?

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