A battle royal is brewing in the least likely of places.
Four shows with established audiences -- "Dollhouse," "Ugly Betty," "Medium" and "Southland" -- will face off Fridays at 9 p.m. this fall.
Could the night where shows go to die reemerge as a day for appointment television?
Last year, when Fox decided to launch "Dollhouse" on Fridays, panic set in among fans of series creator Joss Whedon. "It's 'Firefly' all over again!" wrote one worried observer on the website Whedonesque. (Whedon's short-lived space saga "Firefly" worked the Friday shift in 2002.)
But despite mediocre ratings, "Dollhouse" survived, winning renewal following a creative surge toward the end of its first season. Now the show finds itself going up against stiffer competition, something Whedon calls a double-edged sword.
"On one hand, people could realize that Friday is potentially, if not a viewing night, a recording night," he said. "As opposed to, 'Oh, it's on Friday. It must be something they're trying to kill.' At the same time, I don't want competition! Why don't they put their bad shows there?"
In recent years, Fridays have been a dumping ground for cheap reality shows such as "Howie Do It" and "Supernanny" and low-profile rookies. If you can't remember "The Ex List" and "Crusoe," you're not alone.
But the night does have potential. CBS has grown two big fat Friday night hits in "Ghost Whisperer" at 8 and "Numb3rs" at 10.
Viewers might be jarred by "Medium's" jump from NBC to CBS, but executive producer Glenn Gordon Caron said he's excited about its move to Friday between "Ghost" and "Numb3rs." The two dramas thrived at the end of the week; "Ghost" averaged a series-high 10.6 million viewers last season, and "Numb3rs" averaged 9.8 million.
CBS viewers are generally older and "might be more inclined to be home on a Friday night," Caron acknowledged, but pointed out that the pair also became "conspicuous as quality scripted shows.
"They were filling a hunger for good storytelling in the middle of a night with a lot of reality and makeshift programming," he said.
Other networks now look ready to compete.
Whedon's speeding up the action on "Dollhouse" big time: When the show returns, robogirl Echo (Eliza Dushku) has become aware of the many lives that have invaded her body, and she's on the hunt for answers.
The fourth season of "Ugly Betty" will kick off its Friday run with a two-hour episode introducing viewers to Betty's new look: new glasses, side-swept bangs and a more mature wardrobe. (Later in the season she'll lose the braces too.) "It's Betty 2.0. She's an editor now," executive producer Silvio Horta said, joking, "so we'll go from four-pattern outfits to, like, two."
Horta was initially bummed about being plucked from Thursday nights, but said the time slot is less relevant for him these days. "The people I know aren't watching the show live when it airs. I know that's not the majority of the country, but DVR seems to be where everything is going."
A bigger deal is maintaining the post-show water-cooler talk: Wilhelmina screwed over whom? Marc said what? Betty kissed whom? "That stuff is extra important. I'm hoping our core audience will continue to [follow us] no matter where the show moves," Horta said.
"Southland" executive producer Christopher Chulack, who helped run John Wells' "E.R." for 15 seasons on Thursdays at 10 p.m., said being bumped to Fridays worried him. The show, about the lives of a group of Los Angeles police officers, launched last spring to strong reviews, but its viewership slipped over its six-episode season. NBC announced last month that it was pushing its return to Oct. 23, weeks after the other Friday-at-9 offerings debut.
"Hopefully, the smoke will have cleared and we won't get caught up in the crowded promotional fray," Chulack said. With the original "Law & Order" as a lead-in, he thinks he's got a better shot than most.
He's also got a more patient network on his side. "NBC's trying different things. With Jay Leno moving to 10, the whole paradigm is shifting," Chulack said.