To the Broadcast Networks: A Case for Saturday Nights

best-time-ever-with-neil-patrick-harris

Once upon a time, there was television on Saturday nights — and much of it included some of TV’s biggest hits: Your Show of Shows and The Jackie Gleason Show in the 1950s, Gunsmoke and The Jackie Gleason Show in the 1960s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family in the 1970s and The Love Boat and The Golden Girls in the 1980s.

But by the 1990s, Saturday night hits were largely a thing of the then-recent past as viewership numbers dwindled and people, particularly the over-desired younger demographics, just wouldn’t be home that night to watch television.

Yet the older, “undesireable” viewers remained — the ones who actually still had discretionary income and buying power but were abandoned by the advertiser-focused suits running the networks because of a perceived brand loyalty that has since abated in favor of the best deal. So by the mid-2000s, there were only two original programs airing on Saturday nights: Cops on FOX and 48 Hours on CBS — both unscripted. And with the cancellation of the former in 2013, only the latter remains.

In terms of scripted programming, ABC’s last such program to air on a Saturday night was L.A. Dragnet in 2004. On CBS, it was Hack and The District — also in 2004. On NBC, you have to go back to 2000 with Freaks and Geeks, The Pretender and The Profiler. And on FOX, you have to go back even further to 1993 with the sketch comedy series The Edge.

In terms of ratings, Walker, Texas Ranger was the last Saturday night show to rank in the Top 20 when it ranked #17 for the 1998-1999 TV season. Empty Nest was last Saturday night show to rank in the Top 10 when it ranked #9 for the 1990-1991 TV season. And you have to go all the way back to the 1974-1975 TV season for the last Saturday night show to rank #1 — All in the Family.

In an entry on Ken Levine’s blog, a question was posed about whether or not the networks will ever return to scheduling more original programming on Saturday nights. This was his response:

No. Saturday nights are dead on major networks. Young audiences (all the nets care about) are out on Saturday night and if there’s something they want to watch they’ll DVR it (I guess we’re now starting to phase out the verb “Tivo”) or watch ON DEMAND.

What some networks have discovered however is that sporting events like college football games work on Saturday night. Sports is the only programming people prefer to watch live. And the bonus there is that they can’t zap through the commercials if they’re watching in real-time. I think two of the networks have college football on Saturday nights.

But Saturday original fare will never return. And it’s only a matter of time before Friday falls too. 

While there is validity to his statement, I do disagree with it. Yes, the younger audience is all that the networks care about, but this will have to change if broadcast TV is going to survive. And when it does and the focus reverts back to total viewers (as should have always been the case), then we’ll see a rebirth of Saturday nights on broadcast network television because when there is something worth watching on a Saturday night, people will tune in. After all, Sabado Gigante aired on Saturday nights for over half a century. Granted, that’s a specific market, but a lot of those viewers — broadcast viewers — have been up for grabs since Gigante signed off about a year ago.

In the meantime, this is what we have to look forward on Saturday nights this fall on each of the [English-speaking] networks:

ABC

8pm – Saturday Night Football (fall) / various (spring)

CBS

8pm – Crimetime Saturday

9pm – Crimetime Saturday

10pm – 48 Hours

NBC

8pm – Dateline Saturday Night Mystery

10pm – Saturday Night Live – Classic Encores

FOX

8pm – Fox Sports Saturday – College Football / various (spring)

But here’s what could done with three hours of network programming on a Saturday night:

ABC

8pm – Saturday Night Football (fall) / The ABC Documentary Series (midseason)

9:30pm – The ABC Short Film Series (midseason)

If the networks are looking for inexpensive programming once football ends, why not simply air documentaries and short films that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day or be widely seen outside of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco? They’ve already been produced and, if they’re of broadcast quality, I imagine most of the filmmakers would be more than happy for the exposure. This could be especially synergistic come Oscar time when airing the nominated documentaries (feature and short subject) and short films (live action and animated) would generate some interest in both the telecast itself and those specific categories within it.

CBS

8pm – Crimetime Saturday

9pm – Crimetime Saturday

10pm – 48 Hours

In the fall of 2004, CBS was the first of the broadcast networks to formally concede Saturday nights (except for 48 Hours) despite the fact that its final scripted program on the night was averaging 9 million viewers at the time of its cancellation. But to CBS’s credit, instead of simply airing repeats of their numerous crime procedurals, they branded the night as Crimetime Saturday in order to do so. Such has been the case ever since and though I’d love to see them show more I Love Lucy and other shows from CBS’s storied history, the lineup generally tops the night in total viewers and I can’t imagine anything doing much better for it.

NBC

8pm – Best Night Ever with Neil Patrick Harris (live)

9pm – Maya and Marty (live)

10pm – Dateline Saturday

Though reality-competition shows such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Got Talent and The Voice have taken up the mantle for variety shows in prime time, NBC has made a few attempts at reviving the classic format with The Maya Rudolph Show in the spring of 2014, Best Night Ever with Neil Patrick Harris in the fall of 2015 and Maya and Marty in late spring/early summer of 2016. Though NBC had debuted the Harris show in a plum post-Voice time slot, the live nature of it made it more of an event (like the entire third season of Undateable being aired live) — which would have lent itself well to bringing some excitement and immediacy to Saturday nights. And bringing back The Maya Rudolph Show (or even the seemingly odd pairing with Martin Short) to marry with the now-cancelled Harris show would have made for a great night of live variety programming with popular talent to fill the void left by the departure of Univision’s aforementioned Sabado Gigante — with a slight catering to that particular audience who may now be looking for a similar slate of programming.

FOX

8pm – Fox Sports Saturday – College Football (fall) / Laughs (midseason)

9pm – FOX Concerts (midseason)

Since cancelling COPS in 2013, FOX has been airing sports and a variety of other programming on Saturday nights. In 2024, they launched Laughs on local TV stations across the country — mostly in weekend late fringe. As an alternative, Laughs could be promoted to prime time on the network after the football season. And similar to ABC with its documentaries and short films, FOX could air performances of independent musicians from across the country who would probably love the exposure to those younger audiences home on a Saturday night because they can’t get out to see their concerts. And I can’t imagine the venues themselves would mind providing the footage in exchange for the publicity — but those that can’t don’t have to be a part of FOX Concerts.

While some of the difficulty with scheduling original programming on Saturday nights has to do with changing viewership habits, some of it also has to do with the networks’ focus on targeting younger viewers who are less likely to be at home long enough to watch a show on Saturday nights — although I imagine that will start to change as well as it becomes more and more difficult for younger viewers to eke out enough of a living to afford to going out on a Saturday night.

But the rest of it has to do with the prevailing mindset that people don’t or won’t watch television on a Saturday night. I don’t particularly believe that to have ever been true — especially in this day and age when families may also be less able to afford to go out on a Saturday night. So chances are they will be home and looking for viewing options. Let’s give them some.

And though the broadcast networks place the cause of their steadily declining viewership on ever-increasing competition from cable and online, what the research isn’t telling them is that they just have to adjust their demographic focus and give the remaining viewers something to want to watch instead of just abandoning them and losing out on a great opportunity to bring viewers back to the night — especially those who are starting to cut the cable cords. They’re not all going to go to Netflix or Amazon Prime — and not all of them can or want to stream it through their TV.

But they’ll need to be realistic in their ratings expectations and patient in their attempts to bring viewers back to the night because rebuilding a night of television is akin to urban renewal and will take a few years.

And as for ad dollars: smart advertisers will ultimately go where the viewers are — regardless of the demo.

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