Networks search for ‘SNL’-style variety

DVR-proof shows may be future of TV biz

Network TV’s hottest entertainment franchise at the moment is 33 years old. And not even in primetime.

While the broadcast webs struggle to make sense of what went wrong this fall, they could also take a few notes on what’s going right with “Saturday Night Live.”

“SNL” made itself relevant again in a year when the broadcast nets seem more irrelevant than ever; scored solid laughs in an age when TV comedy remains in crisis; and attracted live viewership in an era when more and more auds are time-shifting their viewing.

As a result, “SNL” boasts the year’s biggest growth story, jumping 67% vs. last year with adults 18-49. Its six originals have averaged a 4.0 rating/16 share in the demo — which doesn’t sound spectacular, until you remember that “SNL” airs in the network no man’s land known as Saturday, and at 11:30 p.m. to boot.

That number still would put “SNL” in the top 20 among all shows in primetime. The show’s three live Thursday night editions performed even better, averaging a 4.4 rating, and an election eve special of mostly old material delivered a blockbuster 5.6.

“They caught lightning in a bottle,” says ABC Entertainment exec VP Jeff Bader, noting the serendipity of Republican veepee nominee Sarah Palin’s resemblance to Tina Fey. “If it weren’t for Sarah Palin, I don’t think things would have worked out the way they did.”

That’s just part of the story, however. Despite its age, “Saturday Night Live” has grown by becoming one of the most digital-friendly shows on TV. Its bite-sized sketches are tailor-made for sites like Hulu, and indeed, the show’s clips have been streamed more than 50 million times this fall.

“Saturday Night Live” also has been helped by its “DVR-proofing” abilities. As a live, topical show, “SNL” is more likely to capture viewers who want to be a part of the discussion the next morning.

“It’s the ability to be relevant and immediate in the DVR age,” says NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios co-chair Ben Silverman. “You want to be a part of that communal conversation that happens with live TV. There’s a sense that Mark Wahlberg or John McCain could just show up in an episode.”

The networks have been looking hard for DVR-proof programs in recent years — hence the value of shows like ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and Fox’s “American Idol.” Ditto event-style scripted fare like the Alphabet’s “Lost.”

“SNL” is also at the forefront as the networks bring back the variety show. Already, the results shows for “Dancing with the Stars” and “Idol” act like de facto variety skeins: They’re live, they contain musical numbers and even skits, and they’re different each week.

As the networks continue to shed viewers, some pundits believe that it’s those kind of live events — as well as sports and moments like the presidential debates — that will still attract large audiences.

That’s partly why all the networks are looking at new ways to revive the variety format. NBC has high hopes for Rosie O’Donnell’s live special the night before Thanksgiving, for starters.

Look to the networks to continue adding more live, event-style programs to their lineups, though Bader warns that going live doesn’t immediately generate interest. (Witness the decline in auds for live awards telecasts.)

“Just because it’s live doesn’t mean that it’s good,” Bader says. “I like anything that has a sense of immediacy. But you have to have a show that people want to watch and want to talk about.”

As for “SNL,” the show must now convince auds it’s still worth watching, even without a presidential campaign to make fun of.

Silverman remains committed to the idea that “SNL” is indeed ready for primetime. The Peacock is planning more themed primetime specials, including one geared toward the Super Bowl. And network insiders say more Lorne Michaels-produced, “SNL”-related projects may also find their way into the network’s regular schedule.

NBC will look to continue producing more “SNL” episodes than in the past, something the net did this fall to take advantage of the interest surrounding the presidential race.

“SNL” won’t be adding any more cast members, however. The show pared back two years ago after Michaels was asked to trim the show’s budget. The media congloms are once again in belt-tightening mode — NBC Universal just mandated company-wide cuts — but Silverman says “SNL’s” budget will be helped by the franchise’s overall expansion.

“What’s good about the extensions and the additional hours is it goes to fund the whole (‘SNL’) machine,” Silverman says. “Lorne’s building off that nucleus.”

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