Picks and Pans Review: Prime Time Bandits

updated 02/23/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

In today's TV free-for-all, shows end late, start early—catch 'em if you can!

No, you aren't paranoid, American television viewer. The networks are conspiring to drive you insane. They're messing with the clock that has guided your viewing habits from time immemorial. They've given splitting headaches to those sweet handmaidens of TV technology the VCR and her younger sister TiVo.

It was nice, once: Schedules were built with dependable, predictable little bricks, half hours and hours. Lately, though, the TV grid has started to look more like a Frank Gehry building. On NBC, Friends routinely spills over its 30 minutes with so-called supersize episodes. The Feb. 5 episode, for instance, clocked in at 44 minutes. That forced The Apprentice to start at the bastard time of 8:44 ET, leaving the viewer the choice of watching the first 16 minutes of Donald Trump or switching to CBS's Survivor: All-Stars, which had begun at 8, for the last 16 minutes of naked Richard Hatch. The Donald's reality show, which has already disrupted the schedule by dispatching Scrubs to Tuesdays, then ran for 75 minutes before making way for ER—not at 10 p.m. but at 9:59.

That was one night, one network, but toying with time is becoming routine across the board: American Idol ran over eight minutes Jan. 19; Survivor ran over five minutes Feb. 3; and ABC's hour-long The Bachelorette stretched to 91 minutes on Feb. 4. The official reason is usually that these shows are too wonderful to be whittled down—you'd think Francis Ford Coppola had become a network executive—but of course, with a hit, there's a fortune to be made in every extra minute. (A 30-second ad on Friends: nearly half a mil.) The problem is that viewers trying to keep track of their shows are the ones who get burned. If you were a rooster and the networks were the sun, by now you'd have crowed yourself to death from confusion.

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