Saturday night fever

ABC faces reality and takes the low-rent road to revive timeslot

ABC is mounting a new fight to bring viewers back to Saturday night, but admit it won’t be easy. And reality is the key.

Frustrated by years of declining ratings, most of the nets long ago abandoned the idea of firstrun fare on Saturdays. Fox still does fine with “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted,” but for the most part the night has become a hodgepodge of repeats and years-old feature films.

The Alphabet wants to change that.

Execs at the net are hoping to transform Saturday from a dumping ground to a breeding ground by challenging producers to come up with high-concept reality show ideas that can be produced for a cut-rate budget of $500,000 per episode. That’s about half the pricetag of a typical unscripted skein, and far less than what a comedy or drama costs.

“We’re pushing people to come up with creative solutions rather than throwing money at the problem,” ABC alternative topper Andrea Wong says. “We want shows that are unique and distinctive at a price point that makes sense on Saturday night.”

The plan, hatched at a retreat ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson held with Wong’s department last month, could have a far-reaching impact.

If ABC is able to generate significant viewership at a low cost, it could spark other nets to get back into the Saturday game.

What’s more, by pushing producers to come up with network-quality reality fare at cable prices, ABC’s plan might halt the rapid inflation that’s taken over the unscripted biz.

While reality once was seen as a low-cost alternative to traditional fare, the genre’s success in recent years — along with rising insurance costs — has pushed prices for such shows much higher than they used to be.

Some producers already are rushing to meet ABC’s challenge.

Eric Schotz, head of reality factory LMNO Prods., says his company is preparing to pitch Alphabet execs on a couple of concepts. He thinks the net’s Saturday strategy is a no-brainer.

“You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he says. “The key is picking projects you can do for that kind of money rather than coming up with a million-dollar idea and doing it for half the cost.”

But while ABC’s plan is low-risk, success is far from a sure thing.

Nets gave up on Saturday because getting an audience on the night proved to be too tough, even when big budget shows were involved.

One web insider notes the audience on Saturday has always been different than on most nights.

For one thing, it’s hard to establish viewer loyalty since auds go out on the town during the weekend. That leaves a lot of very young and over-50 viewers — and as nets moved toward an emphasis on 18- to 49-year-old eyeballs in the 1980s, populist fare like “The Golden Girls” and “Walker, Texas Ranger” suddenly was less appealing.

Throw in ever-increasing competish from cable, plus the rise of DVDs and even movies on-demand, and suddenly, getting eyeballs on Saturday becomes something of a suicide mission.

(Spanish-language power Univision has long done well with gonzo variety skein “Sabado Gigante”; the show more than pays for itself with a wide variety of product placements.)

CBS stayed in the fray the longest, but even it finally threw in the towel on scripted skeins two years ago after a string of dramas — “The District,” “That’s Life,” etc. — failed to strike a chord.

Eye now airs crime show repeats, and industry insiders speculate that a night that once bled ink for the net now turns a tidy profit.

“Network TV is a cold, hard business,” one webhead says bluntly. “We need to make money. I’d rather have (original) series on Saturdays, but if we can fund the rest of the week with repeats on Saturdays, then maybe it’s a worthwhile retreat.”

Saturday night hasn’t always been the vast wasteland it is today.

For decades, legendary Western “Gunsmoke” was a 10 p.m. staple. Rival “Bonanza” began its long run there (before moving to Sundays).

In 1970 came the debut of CBS’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The following year, “All in the Family” joined the night. “The Bob Newhart Show” “MASH” and “The Carol Burnett Show” followed in later years.

By that point, Saturday night had become one of the most important nights of television. And the Eye’s 1973 schedule for the night — “All in the Family,” “MASH,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Bob Newhart” and “Carol Burnett” — is generally considered the greatest lineup of all time.

ABC, meanwhile, hit Saturday night gold in the late ’70s and early ’80s with actioners like “Starsky and Hutch,” as well as the light romantic dramas “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”

Saturday’s last big gasp came in the mid-’80s, when “The Golden Girls” and “The Facts of Life” (and later, “227”) anchored a two-hour block of solid laffers on NBC. After that, there were some modest Saturday hits (“Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Profiler”), but no real blockbusters.

Wong says ABC’s goal isn’t to become a Saturday powerhouse but simply to find some compelling fare that can boost viewership at a reasonable cost. If a major hit emerges that can be moved to another night, that’ll be a bonus.

Even an exec at a rival net concedes the Alphabet is on the right track.

“It’s a cheap lottery ticket,” the suit says. “At the prices they’re looking to produce for, it’s worth a chance or two.”

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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