UPN’s First Goal: Turning Chris Rock Into the New Cosby

At the network upfronts last month, UPN president Dawn Ostroff declared that in Everybody Hates Chris, UPN had a program with “the crossover appeal of The Cosby Show.” Like the legendary 80′s hit, Everybody Hates Chris will run at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. But where Bill Cosby presided over the peaceful bickering of the Huxtable family in a nice, big brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, Chris Rock provides a voiceover for a comedy that features his fictionalized teenage self getting beaten up on the mean streets of Bed-Stuy.

The difference between the past and present vehicles for popular black comedians reflects more than a growing taste for pungent material. It shows the changing terms of the network battle for Thursday night.

“We’re not expecting a show that’s going to win a time period,” said Kelly Kahl, executive vice president of programming for UPN and CBS.

Mr. Kahl said that Mr. Rock’s show had originally been conceived as narrowly targeted programming. “In the beginning, we saw an opportunity for an African-American audience that no one else really goes after,” he said. Then the network realized it had a shot at a broader audience, especially with critics picking it as the most anticipated program of the fall season.

But that won’t make it The Cosby Show. For eight seasons, starting in 1984, Cosby was the lead-in for an NBC lineup so powerful it was immune to challenge. With Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street Blues on its heels, Cosby set the tone for an evening of majoritarian entertainment: a happy, prosperous family of overachievers, gathered around the couch.

Everybody Hates Chris is set in the early 80′s, too-in 1982, when a 13-year-old Chris Rock and his family had just moved out of the projects and into a Bed-Stuy street filled with gangsters and thugs. It’s not a Theo Huxtable life. Dad works two jobs, Mom one. Young Chris is bussed across town to an all-white middle school in a poor Italian neighborhood. In the pilot episode, a fat bully named Caruso calls him a “nigger” and steals the two dollars he was going to spend on a piece of pizza.

That’s today’s Thursday night for the networks: Do the best you can. Dodge the punches. Hold on tight to your lunch money.

The Huxtable living room is no more. No one sits down to a single-channel night anymore, and network executives have all but given up trying to win the big prize: every demographic, every time slot, every moment of Thursday night. Come September, the major and minor networks alike will be doing their utmost to get a part-any part-of the Thursday audience.

And to get any part of the Thursday ad dollars. Networks earn up to 40 percent of their weekly ad revenue on Thursdays, as movie studios and retailers try to stake their claims on viewers’ weekend plans.

“Thursday is an iconic night of the week,” said Michael Jackson, the chairman of Universal Television Group. “Psychologically, it’s very important for the networks. It’s a night when people are feeling tired from their week and want to kind of relax into their favorite television shows, just ahead of the weekend.”

The networks believe, however, that people don’t agree what their favorite shows are. Even the title of Everybody Hates Chris is a swipe at the entertainment-for-all ethos of CBS’s recently retired Everybody Loves Raymond.

It’s time to pick a niche and get filling.

Network execs still offer qualifiers about how they want to reach all viewers. But there’s always some different group that’s supposed to be leading the coalition. Crossover potential or not, UPN is aiming for the “ethnic” audience, according to Mr. Kahl. ABC is moving the popular drama Alias to 8 o’clock Thursday-a move that’s particularly supposed to draw women ages 35 to 49, said Jeff Bader, the network’s executive vice president of programming.

Last fall, Fox moved its Wednesday teen hit The O.C. to Thursdays. The ratings dipped, but the network is sticking with the new slot, upping the number of episodes from 24 to 26 and running more of them in a row, hoping to hold viewers’ attention over the season.

“We are not content to just be out of business on Thursday night,” said Craig Erwich, Fox’s executive vice president of programming.

“I think what happens is that when you put a lot of great shows against each other, more people watch TV,” he continued. “It’s not necessarily a zero-sum game.”

But it looks a lot like one. By stacking Survivor and CSI: Crime Scene Investigations on Thursdays, CBS finally overtook NBC in the 18-to-49 viewership last year. At the younger end of that spectrum, the WB is attacking The O.C. with its own popular teen dramas, Everwood and Smallville.

“Everybody put on a popular show that has a younger-skewing audience,” said Brad Adgate, a senior vice president and the director of research at Horizon Media, an advertising firm that buys commercial time on the major networks. “ABC and the WB have had a miserable, miserable time on Thursday night in recent years. Thursday’s been a horror show for both networks.”

Only NBC is sitting still, keeping its old Thursday-night lineup intact and hoping that something will make the still-strong ER get a lead-in to match: a renaissance for The Apprentice, a naissance for the Friends spin-off Joey, a cultural swing that will make Will & Grace relevant again.

“It’s not a question of who wins the night any more,” said Mr. Bader of ABC, “but of how much more NBC will be hurt.”

“Keeping [ ER] was an easy decision,” said Ted Frank, NBC’s executive vice president of current series. Like the rest of the network’s Thursday night line-up, ER is “upscale,” he explained, and that’s NBC’s strategy for getting back to the golden days. The hits are upscale. Sort of like Joey.

“I’m confident that Joey has found a following, and that Matt LeBlanc remains a big comedy star,” Mr. Frank said. It makes you understand a bit what it felt like to be Chris Rock as a little kid, always getting beaten up, trying to stay positive.

As to all the other networks’ vying for Thursday: “This is primarily a two-network battle,” said Mr. Frank, referring to NBC and CBS jockeying for the top ratings spot. And then: “It used to be a one-network battle. But now it’s not any more.”