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TV's Friday Dead Zone

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Some argue that weekend ratings are down in prime time because viewers are catching up with the shows they DVR’ed during the week. But the argument doesn’t really hold much water. For one, only 35 percent of homes in the country have DVRs, and for another, usage of the devices on Friday is second behind Saturday as the weakest among adults 18-49 for the week. DVD usage is slighter higher on both nights, but not enough to negatively impact the nights to this degree.

“The last thing any of us want to do is abandon the evening,” notes Mitch Metcalf, evp, program planning and scheduling, NBC. “So, the challenge is to keep the night alive, while keeping the costs down. We need to find more creative cost-conscious ways to program Friday, while still trying to fuel some interest in Saturday.”

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 current 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 to NBC on May 7 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” says Metcalf. “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 in fourth quarter care of college football, but outside of veteran newsmagazine 20/20 at 10 p.m., it could be back to square one from 8-10 p.m. on Friday next season.

“We have several scenarios floating in our heads, and we just launched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on the evening,” says Bader. “But, to be honest, our bigger concern at present is replacing Lost and finding a Wednesday sitcom anchor.”

There was talk at one time of ABC trying to recreate its kids-driven comedy lineup from the late ’80s–early ’90s, but corporate cable cousin Disney Channel and Nickelodeon now have a lock among the target kids and tweens. “It’s called fragmentation, and it has taken its toll,” says Bader. “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 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,” says Preston Beckman, Fox’s evp, 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 Network, for instance, has generated interest on Friday with dramas including Monk, Psych and White Collar.

Rebranded Syfy is on the charts at present care 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,” says Barbara Fisher, Hallmark Channel’s svp, original programming. “We knew there was an audience on Saturday not being satisfied by what was being offered elsewhere and welcomed a more seasoned age group.”

As the upfront season edges closer, the broadcast networks are busily plotting their prime-time blueprints for the fall season. The good news for fans of Friday is that execs want to keep programming the night. But the reality remains that Sunday through Thursday will continue to attract the A-list product. “Nothing is etched in stone, but we are hoping to have one scripted drama on Friday next season,” says Fox’s Beckman. “And we do want to find a specific theme.”

ABC has 23 scripted pilots in development and is not against considering something for Friday. CBS (which declined to comment for this story) is expected to freshen up its Friday drama slate with at least one new scripted series. NBC is hoping that its current lineup of Who Do You Think You Are? and the expanded edition of Dateline holds up. And The CW has renewed veteran Smallville for a 10th season and is expected to keep it on Friday.

“Unfortunately, we have no expectations of cracking the top 10 or 20 on Friday,” acknowledges NBC’s Metcalf. “You can’t, after all, house a huge hit every night of the week. But there are still ways to program the night.”

Lonely Saturday, meanwhile, will remain populated with college football on ABC and Fox’s long-running combination of Cops and America’s Most Wanted. CBS will likely keep drama repeats in the 8-10 p.m. block, leading into 48 Hours Mystery, while NBC is also expected to stick with repeats.

“The last thing any of us want is to lose our grip on any night of the week,” says Bader. “From an ad revenue standpoint, we do realize that we cannot program Friday and Saturday as aggressively. But that doesn’t mean we have to totally give up either.”

Here’s hoping…