Saturday fare proves troublesome

Territory report: U.K.

LONDON — If Blighty’s terrestrial players have one thing in common, it’s that they’re all struggling with the problem of Saturday night.

Top of the flops this year was Chris Evans’ Channel 4 gameshow “Boys and Girls,” which was relegated to a late-night slot before being canned. ITV’s diet of movies, gameshows and comedy failed to lift it out of a summer slump, while the return of “Fame Academy,” the BBC’s answer to “Pop Idol,” didn’t deliver for the pubcaster.

With viewers switching to pay channels, DVDs and videogames, primetime auds on Saturday nights have dropped to 18.1 million in 2003 compared with 19.3 million in 1995.

The BBC is beginning its campaign to have its charter — and its public funding — renewed. With this in mind, more public service fare will likely be skedded in primetime.

This quarter sees a slew of history programming in BBC1’s $350 million fall sked — from drama “Charles II,” starring Rufus Sewell, Diana Rigg and Rupert Graves, to docs “Pompei: The Last Day” and “Colosseum.”

That trend is likely to continue until the Beeb secures future funding in 2006. Whether this will stop the pubcaster from forking out a reported $8 million for U.S. pics like “Harry Potter” and bidding for series like “24” remains to be seen.

Commercial web Five is doing a remarkable job of moving away from down-market fare and winning auds with factual fodder.

The 6-year-old web may have the smallest budget of the terrestrial players at £157 million ($246 million), but it is attracting two-thirds (6.5%) of the audience achieved by rival Channel 4 (9.7%), which has a budget of $609 million.

What’s missing from the Five schedule is laffers.

Managing editor Jeff Ford says he’ll be looking to find the right U.S. show that complements the sked. “Films don’t always deliver in the ratings, which is why we’ve gone down the one-hour U.S. drama route.”

C4 has desperately tried to draw back auds with shows such as reality series “14 Alone,” in which a group of teenage boys and girls are filmed in a house for five days.

Chief exec Mark Thompson is driving the broadcaster back to the more thought-provoking fare it launched with in 1982. Dominant commercial broadcaster ITV has a budget of $1.26 billion, a new program director — Nigel Pickard — and has reversed the decline, albeit modestly, in primetime.

Big dramas this fall include “Henry VIII,” starring Ray Winstone and Helena Bonham Carter, and the return after a seven-year hiatus of “Prime Suspect” starring Helen Mirren.

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