NBC hoping for drama on weekend

Zucker: 'Closed for business' Saturday, Sunday nights

HOLLYWOOD — Chances are that if you wish an NBC exec “a nice weekend” these days, you’re likely to be met by a puzzled stare.

The Peacock net may be strutting its way to another season-long demo victory, but it’s been anything but a winner on Saturday and Sunday.

How bad has it been?

Two months after coming aboard as entertainment topper and familiarizing himself with the intricacies of the net’s primetime sked, Jeff Zucker has summed it up this way: “We’re closed for business on Saturday and Sunday nights.”

Well, they’re not closed, exactly, but the lights are flickering and the threat of a rolling blackout is ever present.

NBC, whose biggest hits air on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, hasn’t been much of a weekend warrior in recent years anyway. But its Saturday and Sunday struggles have been especially apparent this season.

Over the course of one eight-day stretch earlier this month, the net produced the lowest-rated opener ever for a miniseries on a Big Three net (a 4.6 rating/7 share in homes for “The Lost Empire” on a Sunday) and the lowest-rated firstrun telecast of any kind (1.6/5 for an XFL game on a Saturday).

Weekend warrior

While it’s certainly a tribute to the strength of NBC’s core midweek series that it is still in the driver’s seat for a sixth adults 18-49 demo victory in the past seven years, the net could make things much easier on itself if it could shore up the weekend.

According to Nielsen, NBC is the season-to-date leader in 18-49 with a 4.9 rating — a small advantage over both ABC and Fox (4.6). But on a Monday through Friday basis, the Peacock’s 5.7 is a full ratings point better than ABC (4.7) and a whopping 33% advantage over third-place Fox (4.3).

If only weeknights were counted, NBC would also be the No. 1 network in total viewers (13.6 million) instead of its current third-place standing (11.9 million).

But in the black hole that is known as the weekend, NBC falls to a distant fourth in both adults 18-49 (a 3.3 to leader Fox’s 5.0) and total viewers (8.6 million to leader CBS’ 13.8 million). Compared with a year ago, the Peacock is down on Saturdays by 28% in adults 18-49 and 25% in viewers, while Sunday is off by 17% in both.

The XFL’s ratings woes have certainly contributed to Saturday’s declines but the net was already down by double-digit percentages on the night with movies before the new football league arrived.

In fact, weak movie scores have contributed to the drop on both weekend nights. Because NBC has significantly pruned its telepic production, it has had to more heavily rely on theatricals — and it just doesn’t have the inventory to keep things humming on two nights.

In announcing recently that next fall’s lineup would not include a Sunday movie for the first time in 20 years, NBC will be able to air stronger product on its lone pic night, Saturday.

For example, second and third runs of such still-potent movies as “While You Were Sleeping” and “Face/Off” — which aired in the higher-profile Sunday movie slot this season opposite movies on CBS and ABC’s tough lineup — can now be shifted over to Saturday. This season, NBC was stuck on Saturday with ratings duds like “The Ghost and the Darkness” and “The Arrival.”

Sunday could be tough, though. NBC hasn’t had much series success on the night — remember, “Ed” bowed there last fall, but didn’t flourish until it moved to Wednesday — and to thrive in the 9-11 p.m. block, its dramas will have to deal with entrenched hits like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “The X-Files” and “The Practice.”

But if the new Sunday dramas can find an audience and the Saturday movie improves, there will be a lot more smiles around NBC on Friday afternoons.

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