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Can Friends Beat a Month of Reality?

What a difference reality makes. Going into February sweeps, Fox has a shot at beating NBC in adults 18-49, after finishing the November sweeps a distant fourth. Fox's Joe Millionaire
and American Idol
are serving up 22 and 30 shares, respectively, in the key demographic, and Fox suddenly has become a strong contender.

Still, Fox doesn't have the one powerful weapon that NBC has: Friends. And analysts say the 8 p.m.-comedy-that-could is the reason NBC will take sweeps again.

"If you took Friends
off that schedule, NBC would be looking a lot weaker," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president, director of broadcast research, at Initiative Media. "NBC just happens to be lucky that its best property happens to be a comedy and a scripted series."

Boosting its best

NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker apparently agrees, which is why the show will be back on the air next year with a price tag of $10 million an episode.

To even further boost Friends' ratings, NBC, as it did last season during a sweeps period, started the February sweeps (on Jan. 30) with a "super-sized," 40-minute show.

The sitcom will host several guest stars during the month, including Dermot Mulroney, Jon Lovitz, Jeff Goldblum and Paul Rudd. Will & Grace, for its part, is getting Madonna, Demi Moore and Minnie Driver.

But it's not just Friends
that's getting pumped up. NBC also will air 40-minute episodes of Scrubs
and Will & Grace, pushing weaker Good Morning, Miami
off the schedule altogether.

The premiere of NBC's druglord drama Kingpin
could drive ratings for the network, says Roy Rothstein, vice president, director, national broadcast, research, Zenith Media. The network is pinning hopes and a bit of its reputation on the drama, which is a thematic departure from most of network TV. NBC will show episodes for the first three weeks of February on Sundays and Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
ET. ABC is hoping reality will make the same difference for it that it has for Fox. The Disney-owned network plans to air reality series I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!
for 15 consecutive nights during February sweeps. If the show hits, it will be huge coup for ABC. If it doesn't, it could be a huge disaster.

Taking a risk

"I think it's a very risky situation," says Rothstein. "While ABC has been very lucky with their reality series, like The Bachelor
and Celebrity Mole, I don't think viewers are going to commit every single night to a series like that for two weeks during the sweeps. The sweeps is very competitive, and there will be a lot of counterprogramming."

Koerner points out, "It's a strategy that has worked for them before with Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. It makes one show a major event. But, if the show is not compelling, if the cast is not interesting, if for all those creative reasons, it's not what it's cracked up to be, then that could be bad."

On the other hand, ABC doesn't have much to lose. It surprised even itself with its second-place performance in November in adults 18-49, but, with Fox in such a strong position going into February, ABC is looking at a close third at best.

Steady success

"They are just trying to get ahead of CBS," Rothstein says.

But CBS has a few tricks up its sleeve. Big events include the 45th Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 23; the premiere of My Big Fat Greek Life
on Monday, Feb. 24; commitment-phobic Robert's proposal to girlfriend Amy on Everybody Loves Raymond
on Monday, Feb. 3; and the premiere of Survivor: The Amazon, followed by a 90-minute episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
on Thursday, Feb. 13.

The key to NBC's and CBS's steady success, analysts say, is their solid schedules of scripted programming with just a bit of reality thrown in. Still, reality is keeping ABC and Fox in the game and their ad rates up, although advertisers can be nervous about reality.

If a reality show is a known hit, like CBS's Survivor, advertisers are happy to get in front of the strong 18-49 audience that show attracts. If the show is an unknown, though, advertisers are more wary.

"With a scripted show, you know what you are getting. With a reality show, you never know," Rothstein says. "It's that uncertainty that leads to a question mark. The last thing you want is for your advertiser to get letters or calls asking how could they be in that show."

Analysts also would like to see Fox and ABC use reality to develop strong scripted shows because, without reality, neither network has a very full plate of programming.

"Viewers get tired of being inundated by reality," Rothstein says. "I hope Fox has some series to put on Mondays at 9 p.m. [Joe Millionaire's time slot]. It would be a shame to waste a time period that is now pumped up for young viewers."