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NEW YORK (Mediaweek) - Friday, like Saturday, was once a haven for some of the best programing on television, featuring some of the most beloved shows of all time.
Baby boomers will recall ABC's classic early-1970s lineup anchored by "The Brady Bunch" and capped off with "Love, American Style." Soap lovers were glued to CBS' combination of "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest" in the 1980s, a tandem that topped the ratings for most of the decade. ABC branded the night "TGIF" and populated it with entries like "Full House" and "Family Matters" for years. NBC introduced ultra-cool "Miami Vice." And the masses were introduced to Fox's "The X-Files" and CBS' "CSI" on this evening.
All is certainly not as it used to be. The "X-Files" morphed into a Sunday staple, while "CSI," of course, still airs on Thursday -- two nights that are considerably more profitable from an ad revenue standpoint. "CSI," in fact, was the last big Friday hit on any broadcast network, and that was nine years ago.
"The audience is very aware that Friday and Saturday are no longer priorities for the networks," said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media. "There are several ways to explain the ongoing audience erosion on Friday and the poor results on Saturday, but the main reason is the programing. It always comes down to the types of shows being offered."
Once upon a time, the end of the work week offered viewers a bounty of options. But, mirroring once robust and now virtually extinct Saturday (which at one time housed such hits as "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Love Boat" and "The Golden Girls"), the landscape on Friday has been deteriorating for years, leading many to worry about the future of that evening as a source of original entertainment. (Cable networks are starting to make their mark on the night, but more on that later.)
NBC has seen a spike in the ratings on Friday this season thanks to its coverage of the Winter Olympics, but ABC, CBS and Fox are all down year to year.
CBS' deteriorating combination of scripted dramas "Ghost Whisperer," "Medium" and "Numbers" have dipped by an average of 19% in total viewers (to 7.8 million from 9.7 million), according to Nielsen Media Research data through March 22.
ABC's erosion -- down 5% in total viewers to 5.4 million -- is less severe, but Friday remains the second-lowest-rated night of the week (behind Saturday) for both networks. Friday, meanwhile, is the weakest link for Fox, with a 21% drop in total viewers to 4.4 million.
The CW actually has more pressing issues than Friday. But since "Smallville" moved from Thursday to Friday, the veteran drama has suffered double-digit losses. Even NBC's canceled "The Jay Leno Show" dipped to its lowest ratings on Fridays.
"Since the advent of people meters and the emphasis on adults 18-49, the audience advertisers covet is just not readily available on Friday or Saturday," said Jeff Bader, executive vp planning, scheduling and distribution for the ABC Entertainment Group. "Economically, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to assemble an aggressive night of programing on both nights similar to earlier in the week simply because of the lack of target viewers and weaker advertiser support."
"It's a Catch-22," Adgate added. "The more the networks shy away from both evenings, the less advertisers want to support it. And the absence of significant advertiser support doesn't exactly give the broadcast networks an incentive to be more productive."
"The last thing any of us want to do is abandon the evening," said Mitch Metcalf, executive vp program planning and scheduling at NBC. "So, the challenge is to keep the night alive while keeping the costs down."
One way is the use of less expensive international product like Canadian drama "Flashpoint" on CBS, which has been a modest success, and summer 2009 drama "Mental" on Fox, which was shot outside the U.S.
Another is the deal NBC has with DirecTV for family drama "Friday Night Lights" to spread the production costs. The next batch of 13 original episodes, which premiered on DirecTV last fall, returns May 7 to NBC in a two-season (26-episode) renewal.
"'Friday Night Lights' was a show we did not want to let go of, but we knew it would never be a huge success from a ratings standpoint," NBC's Metcalf said. "So, we found a way to keep it afloat and will continue to look for ways to program Friday wisely (from a cost standpoint), but still aggressively."
ABC has generated some interest on Saturday, but outside of veteran newsmagazine "20/20" at 10 p.m., it could be back to square one from 8-10 p.m. on Fridays next season.
"We have several scenarios floating in our heads, and we just launched 'Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution' on the evening," ABC's Bader said. "But, to be honest, our bigger concern is replacing "Lost" and finding a Wednesday sitcom anchor."
There was talk at one time of ABC trying to re-create its kids-driven comedy lineup from the late '80s-early '90s, but Disney Channel and Nickelodeon now have a lock among the target kids and tweens. "It's called fragmentation, and it has taken its toll," Bader said. "It is just not simple to target a certain demographic anymore."
Fox had some minor success last season when it featured game shows "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and "Don't Forget the Lyrics." But replacing them last fall with sitcoms "'Til Death" (which the network canceled Monday) and "Brothers" and sophomore returnee "Dollhouse" was short-lived, and the network is filling the night at present with encores of "House" and a blend of new and old episodes of "Kitchen Nightmares."
"Friday is a definite challenge for many reasons," said Preston Beckman, Fox executive vp strategic program planning. "But until we stick with a specific strategy that the audience can become accustomed to, no one will benefit. Only CBS has managed to offer a consistent lineup of scripted dramas, but who knows how profitable they are at this point?"
As the broadcast networks struggle to balance ratings with cost containment on Friday and Saturday, some cable networks are making headway with original content -- the downside is they're attracting older viewers that not every advertiser covets. USA, for instance, has generated interest on Friday with dramas including "Monk," "Psych" and "White Collar." Rebranded Syfy is on the charts with "Battlestar Galactica" spinoff "Caprica."
Even feel-good Hallmark Channel has aggressively scheduled 24 original movies to air on Saturday next season. "We saw an opportunity, and we went for it," said Barbara Fisher, Hallmark Channel senior vp original programing. "We knew there was an audience on Saturday not being satisfied by what was being offered elsewhere and welcomed a more seasoned age group."
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