Friday nights light a new fight for viewers

AS STUDENTS OF “The Karate Kid” movies can attest, true wisdom comes from transforming weakness into strength, using an opponent’s force to your advantage and, of course, painting fences and washing cars.

Such serenity, alas, has eluded the major networks, which are mounting a renewed push to improve their Friday-night ratings, having long since thrown in the towel on Saturdays, which has become “Movie and Crime Drama Rerun” theater.

Once a power center for the nets, Friday spawned seminal hits like “Dallas,” ABC’s “TGIF” comedy block and more recently “The X-Files,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “CSI,” before their respective networks relocated them.

In recent years, however, Friday has joined Saturday as a source of frustration, as low PUT (people using TV) levels have made attracting socially minded teens and young adults — out on dates and until this summer going to movies — beyond challenging. The gap between Friday and Sunday, the most-watched night, is over 20 million viewers, making the modern translation for “TGIF” more like “Tune-in Growth Is Futile.”

This hasn’t dissuaded the nets from tossing high-profile new programs at Fridays this fall, almost all of them chasing the younger demos advertisers covet in part because of their limited availability. So enter CBS’ promising sci-fi thriller “Threshold,” starring Carla Gugino, and Jennifer Love Hewitt in “The Ghost Whisperer,” establishing what should be Maxim’s favorite new block; and NBC’s fertility clinic drama “Inconceivable,” whose title helpfully approximates its prospects of success. Even UPN is shifting its second-most-watched franchise, “WWE Smackdown!,” to Fridays.

WHAT’S PUZZLING IS WHY no one has seized upon a more obvious solution, which would be to embrace the audience that’s there — and find a way to profit from it — rather than vainly pursue one that isn’t.

That is, stop flailing against a brick wall and build a night around older viewers.

I know, media buyers don’t like paying to reach the 50-plus crowd, but given the viability of product placement and tie-ins, a packed house of seniors (provided they aren’t on dates seeking second and third spouses) could be more profitable than a smattering of their juniors. At the very least, bringing sponsors usually limited to golf, tennis and the Hallmark Channel into primetime should beat running Pepsi ads to empty living rooms or returning hours to affiliates, a defeatist idea floated in the past.

Do the math. More older viewers are home. They watch a disproportionate amount of network TV. As a group they’re healthier than ever and possess vast disposable income. And besides, after speeding through 40-some-odd new series the broadcast webs have ordered for the coming season, a face with a little character etched across it might even intrigue younger viewers, if only as a change of pace.

SO WHAT KIND of programs would this strategy require? Here are a handful of suggestions with built-in sponsorship opportunities:

“EDtv” — No, not the Matthew McConaughey movie, but a half-hour sketch/variety show about the lighter side of erectile dysfunction, brought to you by Cialis. (Sound ridiculous? ABC aired “The Cialis Western Open” golf tournament over the weekend. Insert your own putter joke here.)

“Rogaine’s Heroes” — A risque “Sex and the City”-style comedy about formerly bald men who, with their newly sprouted mops, go cruising for the ladies. (If it’s on NBC, throw in one gay guy.)

“Mutual of Omaha’s The Other Side” — Think “Touched by an Angel,” where each week the beautiful Angel of Death (Gugino or Love Hewitt, whichever one’s show gets canceled first) ushers a different senior into the light, much the way a young Robert Redford did in a “The Twilight Zone” classic.

“The Billionaire Boys Club” — Weekly profiles of Sumner Redstone, Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch and other retirement-age moguls who are still going strong. After Mark Cuban’s dismal foray into primetime on “The Benefactor,” just listening to Buffett address Berkshire Hathaway staff would be an education, while providing the perfect tie-in venue for financial and estate planning services.

“50 Million Minutes” — Newsmag in which Mike Wallace profiles everyone in America who is older than he is. Brought to you by Energizer batteries.

On one level, the networks deserve applause for refusing to concede any more primetime real estate without a fight, but attacking Fridays with the same youth-centric formula seems doomed to failure.

So to quote Mr. Miyagi, “If must fight, win.”

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