×

Nets Hope to Stir Saturday Night Fever

AMC, others look to reverse the low-rated tide with better shows

When it comes to weekend TV, many nets seem content with humming the lyrics from an old Sam Cooke song: “Another Saturday night, and I ain’t got nobody.” Ad buyers wish they would sing a different tune.

AMC’s recent decision to shift broadcasts of its Western -themed drama “Hell on Wheels” to Saturday from Sundays, the network’s premier showcase night for original series, has given some advertisers hope that the major nets will consider the night something of a new frontier.

“I think we’re just past the point of all the networks not even trying,” said Sam Armando, senior VP and director of strategic intelligence at SMGx, a media-intelligence unit of Publicis Groupe. AMC’s move, Armando added, could mean the beginnings of a change in strategy at the networks in which the night is seen as having the potential to attract big audiences and offering nets another night to sell to advertisers.

If this article were itself a Western, now might be the time for rolling tumbleweeds. Despite any sponsor’s best hopes, Saturday has for years snared the lowest number of TV viewers of any night of the week, with Sunday and Monday on the other end of the spectrum.

While Saturday timeslots were once filled by many TV giants — CBS’ “All in the Family” and “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” ABC’s “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” among them — the night has been virtually abandoned by the major broadcast and cable nets for more than a decade.

But there are viewers out there — more than 106 million people on most Saturday nights, according to Nielsen — meaning there’s a chance for some outlets to capture audience.

AMC sees an opportunity to gain a stronger foothold on the evening, said Charlie Collier, president and general manager of the network. Westerns have helped the net build viewership among Saturday audiences between 25-54 for most of the day, he said, and AMC’s 2006 oater miniseries “Broken Trail” fared well there, too.

Other networks have also moved against the grain. Cabler BBC America uses Saturdays to launch original episodes of “Doctor Who,” and NBCUniversal’s Syfy has long used the evening to debut its venerable series of kitschy monster films such as “Sharktopus” and “MegaPython vs. Gatoroid.” In June, Syfy will use Saturdays to launch two new original series, “Sinbad” and “Primeval: New World.”

“There are still a lot of people watching television on Saturday night. There’s still a big audience there,” said Thomas Vitale, exec veep of programming and original movies at Syfy and sister channel Chiller. It’s a good day for escapist entertainment the whole family can watch, he said.

Even the broadcasters, who have long left Saturdays to low-rated repeats, have dipped their toes in this water. In recent weeks, ABC has aired the gameshow “Bet on Your Baby” on Saturday nights. In 2011, CBS made noise about wanting to do more on Saturdays, planning to stock the night with its enduring sitcom “Rules of Engagement.” The network reversed its decision by using “Rules” to fill in for the failed Thursday sitcom “How To Be a Gentleman.”

CBS was the last of the Big Four to program original scripted series on the night, with dramas such as “Touched by an Angel”; “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “The District.” But it’s been newsmags and reruns since 2004.

Fox had a beachhead with reality mainstays “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” on the night for years, but finally dropped even “Cops” this season in favor of sports programming and repeats.

Ad buyers have long suggested they would like to get more active on Saturday night, but a look at the money put down each night shows a large disparity. Advertisers spent approximately $1.8 billion on Saturday-night cable and broadcast in 2012, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. But on Sundays, the most popular night of the week for TV watching, they spent nearly $4.4 billion.

“We’re looking for you to come back to Saturday night,” former NBC Entertainment prexy Ben Silverman told advertisers in 2008 in the days leading up to that year’s upfront market. “If you come back, we’ll come back.” Sponsors never really took him up on the challenge.

AMC’s Saturday-night special suggests there may be a business in trying to assemble aficionados of a particular genre, such as sci-fi or Westerns. As for aiming broadly when Saturday-night couch potatoes have so many options? Rather than feel like Sam Cooke, alone
on a weekend, some networks may simply never return to the party.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

  • Peter Fonda Dead: 'Easy Rider' Star

    Peter Fonda, Star of 'Easy Rider,' Dies at 79

    Two-time Oscar nominee Peter Fonda, who became a counterculture icon when he co-wrote, produced and starred in seminal 1969 road movie “Easy Rider,” then showed Hollywood he could act about three decades later in “Ulee’s Gold,” died on Friday from lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79. His sister Jane Fonda [...]

  • CineLink Drama Brings High-End Series to

    CineLink Drama Brings High-End Series to Sarajevo

    When the organizers of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Industry Days surveyed the local TV landscape several years ago, they recognized the chance to make an impact. “We decided five years ago that we need to do something,” says CineLink industry coordinator Armin Hadzic. “The [regional] TV and public broadcasters were coming from another age.” [...]

  • SCHOOLED - ABC's "Schooled" stars Bryan

    'Kids Are Alright' Creator Joins 'Schooled' Season 2 as Showrunner

    Tim Doyle is taking over as showrunner and executive producer on the upcoming second season of “Schooled” at ABC, Variety has confirmed. Doyle takes over from Season 1 showrunner and series co-creator Marc Firek, who has exited the series to focus on development. The news comes just months after Doyle’s 1970s-set comedy series, “The Kids [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content