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.

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