Not too long ago, Saturday night was all right for television.
Classics such as “All in the Family” and “Mary Tyler Moore” ruled the Nielsens and cleaned up at the Emmys in the mid-1970s — despite airing on what’s usually considered the least-viewed night of the week.
Heading into the 1980s, Saturday skeins such as “Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “The Golden Girls” became popular favorites.
“Saturday night was always the big night for TV,” says programming legend Fred Silverman, who created CBS’ famed lineups of the early 1970s. “It was worth your while to really program.”
But then came Nielsen’s people meters and more sophisticated means of ratings measurement. Once the networks realized that fewer young viewers were watching network TV on Saturday night, the evening became a dumping ground.
Little originality found
This season only one network is even airing scripted series: While CBS attempts to jumpstart Saturday night with newcomers “That’s Life” and “The District” as well as old standby “Walker, Texas Ranger,” ABC and NBC will rely on three-hour movies. As usual, Fox has reality regulars “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” on tap.
“After the ‘Golden Girls’ era, Saturday fell into disfavor,” Silverman says. “The research departments issued their manifestos at each of the networks saying that on Saturday night there are only older people available and that young people go out, so don’t throw a lot of money against it.”
In subsequent years the networks began to tackle Saturday nights last, only after the rest of their schedules were firmed up.
“Right now it’s the last port of call,” Silverman says. “You take care of every other night and then you see what you have left over. And usually, just based on how meager the development lists are, they have nothing left over — and so they end up with three-hour movies.”
No duds here
Of course, it was a very different television landscape in the early 1970s, when Silverman’s Saturday night CBS sked represented the best TV had to offer. There wasn’t a dud among the roster in the fall of 1973: “All in the Family” kicked things off at 8 p.m., followed by “M*A*S*H,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“I think the lineup was probably the best single night in the history of TV,” Silverman says. “It was a hell of a lineup. It grew over three or four seasons. The first show in place was ‘Mary Tyler Moore.’ Then it kind of grew.”
Silverman says he stumbled “by accident” into scheduling “All in the Family” on the night.
” ‘All in the Family’ hadn’t been scheduled on Saturday and then two weeks before the start of the season we moved it to 8 p.m.,” he says. “And it took off like a rocket. It took about three or four shows at 8:30 before we put ‘M*A*S*H in there.”
Must See TV of 1973
Boston Herald TV editor Joel Brown, who grew up watching that influential lineup in the 1970s, said it even trumps NBC’s strong “Must See TV” schedules of the mid-’90s.
“(CBS’ Saturday night was) more than arguably the greatest single night of TV during my viewing life,” Brown said. “You had the sense even at that time that you were seeing something special.”
NBC took up the Saturday-night comedy mantle in the 1980s, airing the successful “Golden Girls” along with laffers such as “227,” “Empty Nest,” “Amen” and “Facts of Life.” But by the late 1980s, cable networks began to pick up some of the programming slack as the networks lost interest in the night.
Pay cablers enter fray
“HBO said, ‘We’re going to make Saturday night our premium night, and they put all of their original movies on Saturday,” Silverman says. “And some of the other cable networks followed with original programming. Now they’ve really picked the carcass pretty dry.
“To CBS’ credit, they are trying this year, and I think one of their best shows is ‘The District,’ ” he says. “I think they’re really going to take advantage of the weakness everywhere else.”
Despite the proliferation of cable channels and other entertainment distractions, Silverman believes there’s still an audience for Saturday-night network programming.
“There’s a big-enough audience available on Saturday night to support network programming on the so-called big four,” he says. “But (audiences) are watching cable now. It’s really going to depend what you put on the air.”
Edgier fare not necessarily better
But Silverman does offer one caveat: Edgier fare won’t work on the night — witness the failure a few years back of ABC’s heralded, darker revival of “Fantasy Island.”
“You need a broad appeal comedy,” he says. ” ‘Will & Grace’ would never work on a Saturday night. But a show like ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ could.
Silverman is guessing that if “The District” does well in its timeslot, Saturdays will no longer be a dumping ground.
“My guess is, based on (CBS topper) Les (Moonves’) success on Saturday, you’ll see other players.”