For decades, Saturday was an essential component of each broadcast network's prime-time schedule, but in recent years the networks have thrown in the towel on the night, which has the week's lowest HUT (homes using television) levels.
That includes CBS, which for years has programmed two hours of drama repeats—called Crimetime Saturday—and newsmagazine 48 Hours to fill the evening. But this winter, CBS is doing something it hasn't attempted in 13 years: airing an original drama, Ransom, on Saturdays.
The series, about a crisis and hostage negotiator who tackles kidnappings and ransom cases, is a Canada-France co-production, from independent studio eOne, and cost CBS a fraction of what the network usually spends on its dramas.
"We're always looking for opportunities to improve the numbers on the schedule," said CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller. "Crimetime does just fine, but we had a unique opportunity with Ransom, because it was an international production, and we said, let's see what we can do on Saturday nights."
Traditionally, "The night is the last priority for most networks as you're setting your schedule," said Kelly Kahl, senior evp of CBS Primetime.
While CBS has used Saturdays to burn off remaining episodes of canceled shows like Made in Jersey and Three Rivers, the network hasn't scheduled dramas on Saturday since the 2003-04 season, when Hack (starring David Morse and Andre Braugher) and The District (with Craig T. Nelson) aired on the night.
More recently, CBS tried airing a comedy on Saturday, programming the David Spade sitcom Rules of Engagement there in 2011. But the network abandoned the experiment after just a few weeks, shifting Rules to Thursday to replace the DOA sitcom How to Be a Gentleman (which was burned off on, yes, Saturdays).
Because CBS audiences responded to freshman fall series Bull, Kevin Can Wait, Man With a Plan and The Great Indoors, "we're sitting pretty good the other nights of the week," said Kahl. "Every night of the week counts, and as you look at your weekly numbers, an hour on Saturday counts exactly the same as an hour on Monday. So we saw an opportunity there for us."
CBS gave Ransom a Sunday launch on Jan. 1, where it drew 6.7 million viewers, and a 0.8 rating in the adults 18-49 demo. Last week, in its first regular airing on Saturday at 8 p.m. (opposite an NFL wildcard game on NBC), it was watched by 3.3 million viewers, and earned a 0.4 rating. The demo rating was equal to the Criminal Minds repeat that aired after it, though that program didn't get as many total viewers (2.95 million).
"It did as well as, or a little better than, some of the repeats we had on Saturday," said Kahl. "And that was against football, so once we get out of the football business and we can let this thing run for a few weeks in a row, I'm confident we can put some solid numbers up."
Best case scenario: If Ransom gets some ratings traction on Saturdays, Kahl could consider using Saturdays as a more regular part of the schedule next season. "I think that's a bigger discussion, obviously, but if there are any positive signs, we would love to tackle Saturday," he said.