NEW YORK - NBC is making big changes to its prime-time lineup for Thursday - the night it used to own in the era of "must-see TV" - by instituting a two-hour comedy block led by "My Name Is Earl."
Banished from the night, and temporarily off the air entirely, is "Joey," the spinoff that lost all of the energy and most of the viewers from "Friends."
Thursday's announcement represents NBC's attempt to recapture its magic on what is the most lucrative night of the week in television advertising. Through "The Cosby Show,"Cheers," "Seinfeld" and "Friends," NBC dominated Thursdays for nearly two decades, but CBS' combination of "Survivor" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" now rules.
Starting January 5, NBC's new Thursday lineup will be "Will & Grace," in its final season; the new buddy comedy "Four Kings"; the strong freshman show "My Name Is Earl"; and "The Office."
"ER" will remain in its customary spot at 10 p.m. ET, NBC said.
"The four-comedy block plays to the history of the night," said Kevin Reilly, NBC entertainment president. He said it represents broadcast TV's only comedy night for viewers looking for something out of the ordinary.
The changes were no surprise; many people in the television industry were surprised NBC started the fall season with its struggling Thursday lineup intact. NBC's announcement came the day after Fox said that it is keeping "American Idol" on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, after considering moving the "Idol" results show to Thursdays.
Among the youthful viewers that represent NBC's target audience, its ratings from 8 to 10 p.m. on Thursday are down 38 percent from last season, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," said Sharianne Brill, programming analyst for Carat USA, of NBC's move. "It will help them get back to their comedy roots. They've always been known for that."
When "My Name Is Earl," the comedy starring Jason Lee as a loser trying to make amends for bad behavior, became a hit, NBC executives spent much of the fall debating whether to move it to Thursdays. At first they didn't want to risk alienating viewers who had just gotten used to seeing it on Tuesdays.
"Joey" has been a huge disappointment for NBC, its audience only a third of that earned by "Friends" in its last season. It will be taken off the air until at least March, after NBC airs the Winter Olympics.
Reilly said "Joey" will be back. Its likely destination is Tuesday night, where NBC will run "Fear Factor" and back-to-back episodes of "Scrubs" from 8 to 10 p.m. starting in January.
After running two separate editions of "The Apprentice" with Donald Trump and Martha Stewart this fall, the boardroom will be quiet in the winter. Reilly said a Trump version of "The Apprentice" will be back after the Olympics but it's unclear where it will air. Wednesday night, where a short-run season of "The Biggest Loser" will air starting January, seems the most likely spot.
Following the TV trend toward supernatural shows, NBC in January will introduce "The Book of Daniel," a Friday night drama starring Aidan Quinn as an Episcopalian minister who regularly converses with Jesus Christ.