By Stephen M. Silverman
October 15, 2003 05:05 PM

Despite the ballyhoo and even controversy that some thought might boost its ratings, the new NBC sitcom “Coupling,” originally billed as the next “Friends,” has taken a major kick in the pants from its network, The New York Times reports.

NBC will preempt this Thursday night’s “Coupling” episode, replacing it with “Whoopi,” the new Whoopi Goldberg sitcom that the network clearly hopes to give a helping hand, NBC announced Tuesday.

The Goldberg show, despite mixed reviews, is holding its own against some stiff Tuesday-night competition. “Coupling,” meanwhile, currently occupies one of the most enviable timeslots on all TV, between “Will & Grace” and “ER,” The Times reports.

As for when “Coupling” might return to the air, NBC is not saying. That’s not to say it’s been canceled — but the network also isn’t promising that it will come back.

Pulling a show from the schedule this early in the season is hardly considered a good sign. Ratings for “Coupling,” based on a British TV sex farce, have been tumbling since its September debut and are even lower than they were a year ago for “Good Morning, Miami,” which occupied that same slot (and which now can be seen on Tuesday nights).

Last week, 10.3 million people watched “Coupling,” compared to 15.3 million its first week and the 16.3 million who tuned in to “Miami” last week.

As for how “Whoopi” might fare, The Times suggests it’s anyone’s guess — especially since it will appear opposite Game 7 in the American League playoffs between Boston and New York. The game will be broadcast on FOX.

But if “Whoopi” does do well, then it could uncouple “Coupling” permanently.