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Is Thursday TV ripe for an extreme makeover?

December 5, 2008 |  3:33 pm

The numbers are in, and it's official: The ratings for Thursdays this fall have been pretty crummy.

Last night, the bad numbers struck again, with "Grey's Anatomy," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and the new "Eleventh Hour" plunging to or near all-time lows, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

We'll spare you the customary alibis — often heard emanating from network corner offices these days — about how overnight ratings are only part of the picture, DVRs mean more people are watching shows on a time delay, TV's economic model is changing, etc., etc.

Instead, consider this: Thursdays, for years network TV's biggest night, is ripe for a reinvention. When programmers unveil their new fall lineups in May, look for big changes on the night.

This is the third straight season that Thursdays are driven by the 9 p.m. face-off between "Grey's" and "CSI." Three years is a long time in TV terms. And both of those series are established hits that are showing the inevitable signs of aging. "Grey's" is in Season 5; "CSI," back for Season 9. Both shows have spawned spinoffs that further dilute their distinctiveness.

Meanwhile, since fall '06, neither ABC nor CBS has been able to use those existing hits to develop an audience for a new show at 10 p.m., as proved by the failure of "Six Degrees," "Big Shots" and "Shark" (the jury is still out on "Eleventh Hour," and "Life on Mars" is being moved).

All of this should create big opportunities for NBC and Fox. But NBC has been stuck for the last few seasons trying to rebuild its once-dominant Thursday comedy block, with mixed results. "30 Rock" and "The Office" are terrific shows, but at the moment that combo isn't about to lay waste to ABC or CBS.

The gutsiest gambit, of course, would be for Fox to move "American Idol" to Thursdays. But the network has tended to regard that option rather like a developing nation regards nuclear bombs, as an alternative whose real power lies in threat rather than actual use. At any rate, Fox has never moved "Idol" and won't next month, either. So, the network is sticking with its recent Thursday strategy of game shows and reality (like "Kitchen Nightmares" this season). It keeps Fox in the game, if not much else.

That brings us back to ABC and CBS. One of them will have to break the stalemate. There are simply too many viewers at stake to do otherwise. But what can they put there? Stay tuned.

—Scott Collins