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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Friday night television -- long regarded as a lame duck slot for dying shows -- is making a comeback this fall, with U.S. networks investing in new scripted dramas with big stars, and advertisers looking for stay-at-home audiences.
Be it the poor economy, the rebound in the ad spending, or the quest for even small audiences in a fragmented TV market, three of the five leading networks are launching new primetime series in September on Friday nights.
ABC has medical/crime drama "Body of Proof", Tom Selleck stars in the CBS police family drama "Blue Bloods", while NBC is putting on its new Jimmy Smits lawyer show "Outlaw".
Youth-oriented channel the CW has also moved returning popular shows "Smallville" and "Supernatural" to Fridays.
"Putting a show on Fridays had become the equivalent of opening a movie the week after Christmas. It was seen as the dumping ground," said Craig Tomashoff, executive editor of TV Guide Magazine.
"There are few bigger TV stars than Tom Selleck, so to put him on Friday nights -- and equally Jimmy Smits -- is an encouraging sign that networks for the first time in years are trying to get viewers back on Friday," he added.
Networks have traditionally put some of their best programs on Thursday nights, when advertisers seize the chance to catch the coveted 18-49 year-old audience before it embarks on weekends out at movie theaters, restaurants and shopping malls, said Brad Adgate, senior researcher at Horizon Media.
But with little competition from cable channels and Americans cutting back on spending in the economic downturn, the networks feel there is a Friday night TV audience to be had -- at least outside younger viewers.
"There are many millions of viewers available on Friday," said NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf. "It is also an important night for advertisers. It is the last chance to reach consumers before big weekend decisions -- like visiting car showrooms or retail stores."
Encouraged by rising Friday audiences over the spring and summer for its topical news show "Dateline" and genealogy series "Who Do You Think You Are", NBC is launching "Outlaw" in the Friday 10 pm slot on September 24.
"We feel that 'Outlaw' has the strength of a great TV star in Jimmy Smits. He is highly appealing, particularly to 35-plus women, which fits with the profile of the available audience on the night," said Metcalf.
"Outlaw" -- about a maverick playboy who walks away from a Supreme Court job to return to private practice -- will have stories that are wrapped-up each week.
"I think it would be a mistake to put a very serialized show on Friday nights...It would be hard to expect people to watch every single week," Metcalf said.
Adgate said parents with young families and older viewers are the target Friday audience, and networks will be watching DVR data to see if people are recording the Friday night shows and watching them on other evenings.
"If a Friday show becomes very heavily time-shifted, the networks are going to notice that and either keep the show there -- or move it to another night.
"I do think there are opportunities. You may not make the most money, but you could get a hit very easily," Adgate said.
Fridays weren't always so dull. CBS launched its "CSI" crime show on Friday night 10 years ago and it went on to become one of the most-watched series on U.S. television and around the world.
When asked about his new "Blue Bloods" CBS show at July's Television Critics Association meetings, Selleck replied, "If it's good, they'll probably watch."
Executive producer Robin Green quickly chimed-in, "That's right. But there is part of me that wants to conquer Friday night, and say 'See!'".
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte