Nets juggle p'gramming in struggle to avoid Saturday's slump

Having already abandoned Saturday due to decay and disuse, the networks say they won’t turn their back on Friday — yet.

But as they attempt to reinvigorate the night, web execs face an uphill battle. If they’re not careful, Friday could follow Saturday as network TV’s next ghost night.

“It’s not a crazy possibility,” says one net exec. “We’ve got to convince audiences to stop going out to dinner on Friday nights. You’re afraid to put your best stuff there.”

The same factors affecting Saturday viewing has hammered the nets on Friday in recent years. Last season, seven new shows premiered on Friday night–and none is back this year.

The networks raised the white flag on Saturday nights three years ago after years of declining viewership.

Depending whom you ask, either the networks had no choice but to stop developing programs for the night–or they wimped out in the face of diminishing returns rather than live to fight another Saturday.

Either way, the broadcast webs have virtually turned into six-day-a-week operations. Given the cost of producing series for Saturday night’s fractured audience, it’s unlikely the others will return with traditional programming anytime soon, either.

The Peacock has joined ABC in filling Saturday primetime with moldy feature films, while Fox has no reason to shake things up, having won by default with young viewers thanks to its well-entrenched “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” one-two punch.

WB, meanwhile, has opted to avoid Saturdays altogether, expanding its Sunday sked by two hours rather than enter the seventh night.

Only CBS makes an effort to schedule original, scripted series on Saturdays, airing older-skewing dramas such as “Touched by an Angel.”

HUT (homes using television) levels are traditionally the lowest on Saturday night (55.8%), with Friday night a close second (56.6%). Auds — especially those with younger eyes — are watching cable (including fresher entries on HBO), renting DVDs and sampling a bonanza of movies at the megaplex (fueling this year’s record box office).

As youthful viewers flee, ABC gave up its once-powerful “TGIF” lineup (and resurrected “America’s Funniest Home Videos” as a stop-gap measure). Fox hasn’t been able to launch a hit on Friday since “The X-Files,” while NBC found success by going after a narrow older women demo at 8 p.m. with “Providence”

Friday boasts only one bona fide hit: NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.”

But unlike the Saturday fight, some web execs say they’re not about to concede on Fridays. To prove their point, the webs bowed another seven new shows on Fridays this fall — more than on any other night.

“We refuse to believe that you’ll see people simply throwing in the towel on Fridays the way they did on Saturday,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS’ exec VP of program planning and scheduling.

After all, Friday has incubated shows like CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which eventually moved to Thursdays and became a megahit.

Although the first cancellation of the season — ABC’s “That Was Then” — aired on Friday, newcomers “John Doe” (Fox) and “Hack” (CBS) have shown some early promise.

“Is Friday becoming the new Saturday?” asks Fox scheduling topper Preston Beckman. “If that theory was correct, we wouldn’t be scheduling two rather expensive hour dramas (“John Doe” and “Firefly”) on the night.”

Over at the WB, Frog execs have capitalized on the death of “TGIF” by scheduling young-skewing comedies (such as “Reba” and “What I Like About You”) against everyone else’s hourlong skeins.

“We’re really focused and we know the objectives we’re trying to achieve,” says Rusty Mintz, the WB’s senior VP of scheduling. “By appealing to females 12-34, we can do really well. For us it’s a big opportunity. If you’re willing to give up, it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, the networks will never spend as much time focusing on Friday night as they do on Sunday through Thursday. Not only are advertisers (particularly movie studios) less interested in the night, but execs have enough fires to combat on the other days of the week.

“When you’ve got huge problems throughout the week, it’s hard to focus on Friday,” one net exec says. “If you’re gushing money on five nights, Friday is not your first priority to fix.”

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