Saturday night has long been the loneliest night of the week in the television business, but lately it’s been joined by another evening pining for viewers: Fridays.
Once the location of some of television’s biggest hits, everything from the TGIF comedies on ABC, the early episodes of “The X-Files” and “C.S.I.,” and even the solution to “Who Shot J.R.?” on “Dallas,” Friday is now mostly a night made up of newsmagazine hours, second-level reality shows, series that are finishing out their runs, and shows for older viewers who are considered less valuable on other nights of the week.
With one notable exception — the Spanish-language network Univision — Friday is, after Saturday, the weakest night for every broadcast network and many cable networks, especially those that appeal to younger viewers (like MTV, Disney Channel, and Comedy Central). It is a night that has not spawned a true hit network series in more than a decade. And it’s considered such a wasteland that the late-night comedy stars Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien and Chelsea Handler all skip the night entirely.
In recent years, ratings have declined so much on Fridays that some program producers have privately expressed worries that the network programmers might start skipping the night entirely as well. That’s what happened on Saturdays, which is now the repository of wall-to-wall repeats.
But even though ABC and NBC began the new television season by sprinkling Fridays with repeats instead of new programs, network executives are, for now at least, vowing to resist the urge to reduce Friday to another used-programming lot.
“We don’t want to see Friday become another Saturday night ghetto where it’s repeat city,” said Alan Wurtzel, the president of research and media development for NBC. And Preston Beckman, the executive vice president of program planning and research for Fox, said, “There is no consideration here about not programming Friday night aggressively.”
CBS, noted its head of research, David F. Poltrack, has an established strategy on Friday that is producing sizable audiences and consistent profits. He pointed to the crime show “Blue Bloods,” which reaches more than 11 million viewers on Friday — mainly by appealing to older viewers. (Its median age, one of the oldest in television, is 61.1 years.) “That show is very saleable for us,” Mr. Poltrack said, stressing that the show performs well in households with more than $100,000 in income.
What is not so saleable are shows that appeal to younger viewers. “If you want a show to reach an 18- to 34-year-old audience, you should not put it on Friday,” he said. “It makes no economic sense.”
Unless you happen to be Univision. That network has beaten all of the broadcast networks in reaching viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 (the chief sales target for most television advertisers) all three weeks of the new television season. And Univision has beaten the broadcast networks on Fridays in the 18-34 age group for 28 weeks in a row.
So whatever is happening to English-language viewers on Fridays appears not to be happening to Spanish-language viewers.
But what is happening exactly? Network executives blamed a range of social and cultural developments for the decline in audience on Fridays, many of which boil down to one simple factor: not as many people watch television on Friday night.
Statistically, that has always been true. The numbers of homes using television and people using television have traditionally been lowest on Saturday and second-lowest on Friday. That didn’t matter much when only three networks dominated television viewing: hit shows could thrive on Friday and even Saturday (e.g. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”)
But as mass competition entered the television business, the relatively lower number of people using television on Friday made establishing hits on the night much more of a challenge. Adding more contemporary factors like video game play and DVR playback into what was already a mix of Friday-night diversions has only heightened the degree of difficulty.
“Friday is a big DVR viewing night,” Mr. Poltrack said. Playback on other nights is higher, but Mr. Poltrack cited the percentage of impact the playback has on Friday as telling.
And Friday has added appeal as a playback night, Mr. Poltrack said, because “by Friday people have built up an inventory of shows they recorded earlier in the week.”
Those are the people in front of TV sets, of course. “We know there are a lot people out on that night,” Mr. Poltrack said, citing people out at dinner or going to movies, which open on Friday nights.
Then there’s another factor. “High school football has a big impact,” Mr. Poltrack said. “Most schools play games on Friday nights now. You will see the audiences go up on Fridays after the fall.”
Still, nobody denies that tens of millions of viewers are around on Friday — of every age. Univision attracted about three million viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 on that night for its telenovela “Teresa,” a number any network would celebrate on a Friday.
At least some of the issue with Friday night underperformance amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mr. Wurtzel and Mr. Beckman conceded that Friday is a night that even an accidental hit is unlikely to change — because if a show did succeed on a Friday, it would almost certainly be moved to another night, where viewing levels are higher.
“Generally, Friday is the last night you program,” Mr. Beckman said. That means the shows are not expected to be hits. But sometimes they are. Mr. Beckman cited what he called the “C.S.I.” model. That drama, with no promotional push, broke out as an instant hit in the fall of 2000 on Friday. By February, the show was on Thursday.
Fridays have also become a parking garage for shows either finishing up long runs (CBS’s “C.S.I. New York”) or looking to add a few more episodes to ensure sales in syndication (NBC’s “Chuck”). Only rarely is Friday a place where a show has a passionate following.
Fox’s “Fringe” fits that description. It attracts a minuscule audience on Fridays, but it adds about 50 percent more with DVR playback included. Jeff Pinkner, one of the show’s executive producers, said, given the choice, surviving on Friday was preferable to being canceled on another night. But he added that “on another night, with a good lead-in, we might get some accidental viewing and people would be exposed to the show and see how good it is.”
This season only CBS and NBC planned to introduce new series on Friday. CBS installed a soft medical drama, “A Gifted Man” and it has produced soft ratings. NBC is taking a bigger swing with a show called “Grimm,” which starts Oct. 28 and which has an added dimension: It’s scary. Friday has been a good night for scary fare in the past (“The X-Files” being the best example). But if “Grimm” somehow breaks out, NBC, which needs help across its schedule, would have a lot of incentive to move it.
So how has Univision solved the riddle of Friday? Mainly by using a model that actually drives viewers to Friday nights: the telenovela.
Cesar Conde, the president of Univision Networks, said in a telephone interview, “The telenovela has a different viewing habit. The story runs in sequence Monday through Friday, and the Friday episode is often a cliffhanger.” That makes it must-see viewing for Univision viewers.
In addition, Mr. Conde pointed out, Hispanic viewers, who tend to be young simply because the Hispanic population skews young, almost always watch the telenovelas live: they do much less recording of programs. And they tend to watch all their favorite shows as a family.
That profile probably sounds familiar to long-time network executives. That is the way most of American television used to work — back when viewers watched television on Fridays.