NBC has announced that The Apprentice 5, which it had previously announced would premiere "after the Olympics," will literally do so, premiering on Monday, February 27, the day after the network's Sunday night broadcast of the closing day ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

This month's relaunch of NBC's Thursday night comedy block has so far been a modest ratings success for the struggling network, and as a result, NBC will be keeping its My Name Is Earl/The Office combo in The Apprentice's former Thursday 9PM time period for the reminder of their seasons and instead moving The Apprentice to a new Mondays at 9PM regular time period.

The Apprentice's move to the time period previously occupied by Las Vegas will only part of a significant reshuffling of NBC's broadcast schedule that will also see the return of Deal Or No Deal, the introduction of three new scripted shows, and a new timeslot for Law & Order.

"We are not going to slip quietly into spring," NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly boasted as he announced the programming changes at the Television Critics Association's January Press Tour on Sunday. "With these exciting new shows in our re-configured schedule, we will be very competitive -- and given the promotional momentum of the Olympics, we can give these promising shows the launch they deserve."

Instead of Mondays, Las Vegas will now air on Friday nights, where NBC hopes to challenge the success of CBS' new Ghost Whisperer/Close To Home/Numb3rs drama lineup (yes, after spending years largely ignoring it, network television is apparently now making Friday nights a bit of a battleground.) "We're going to stop giving the competition a free pass on Friday night," Reilly told the group of critics gathered for his presentation.

Also joining Las Vegas on NBC's new Friday night lineup will Conviction, a new legal drama from Law & Order creator Dick Wolf. As for Law & Order, NBC will be moving the long-running original edition of the series up an hour to Wednesdays at 9PM ET/PT. The move will pit the crime drama up against both ABC's Lost and Fox's American Idol 5 result shows (once they start) but free L&O's current 10PM time period for Heist, a new Ocean's Eleven-sounding robbery drama co-created by The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith director Doug Liman.

With the network's Surface scifi drama set to air its season finale before the Olympics begin, NBC's post-Olympic Monday 8PM time period will feature a new lead-in for The Apprentice 5 -- Deal Or No Deal, the Howie Mandel hosted game show that drew good ratings when NBC premiered it as a five-night event during a mid-December week that featured little other non-repeat broadcast competition.

It remains unclear whether Deal Or No Deal has any staying power or simply benefited from the fact that television viewers were desperate for some original December programming, but NBC plans to find out. As it did in December, Deal Or No Deal will have another five-night run during the week of February 27 (airing at 8PM every weeknight) before settling into its new Mondays at 8PM ET/PT regular weekly time period beginning Monday, March 6.

While Deal Or No Deal may be unlikely to deliver the 12.7 million viewers that it averaged during its December broadcasts when it begins airing weekly on Mondays, the show is still likely to provide the best lead-in that The Apprentice has had since Friends left the airwaves in May 2004. Joey and Will & Grace -- NBC's lead-in to The Apprentice's most recently aired Fall 2005 edition -- averaged only 7.6 million and 8.3 million viewers during their fall broadcasts, woeful numbers that are widely believed to have contributed to The Apprentice 4 averaging only 11.0 million viewers (a sharp decline from the 20.7 million viewers that The Apprentice averaged during its initial Spring 2004 season that featured Friends as part of its Thursday 8-9PM lead-in.)

As for Joey, although NBC had previously announced that, like The Apprentice, it would return after the Olympics, the poorly rated Friends spinoff is not part of NBC's newly announced spring schedule. The Office's March 30 season finale will mean that NBC will have an opening on its new Thursday night sitcom block beginning Thursday, April 6, but rather than bring back the Matt LeBlanc-led comedy, NBC will instead give the prized post-Earl time period to Teachers, a new high school sitcom centered around an English teacher played by actor Justin Bartha.

According to Reilly, Joey will instead remain on hiatus, with the NBC chief also hinting that its future -- as well as that of the network's recently premiered The Book of Daniel -- is very much in doubt.