Friday, like Saturday, was once a haven for some of the best programming on television, featuring some of the most beloved shows of all time.
Baby boomers will nostalgically recall ABC’s classic early-1970s kids lineup anchored by The Brady Bunch and capped off with Love, American Style. Soap lovers were glued to CBS’ combination of Dallas and Falcon Crest in the 1980s, which topped the ratings charts for most of the decade. ABC themed the night “TGIF” and populated it with entries like Full House and Family Matters for years. NBC introduced ultra-cool Miami Vice. And the masses were introduced to Fox’s The X-Files and CBS’ CSI on this evening.
All is certainly not as it used to be. The X-Files morphed into a long-running Sunday staple, while CSI, of course, still airs on Thursday—two nights that are considerably more profitable from an ad revenue standpoint. CSI, in fact, was the last big Friday hit on any broadcast network, and that was nine years ago.
“The audience is very aware that Friday and Saturday are no longer priorities for the networks,” explains Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media. “There are several ways to explain the ongoing audience erosion on Friday and the poor results on Saturday, but the main reason is the programming. It always comes down to the types of shows being offered.”
Once upon a time, the end of the work week offered viewers a bounty of options. But, mirroring once robust and now virtually extinct Saturday (which at one time also housed the biggest hits on television: All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Love Boat and The Golden Girls), the landscape on Friday has been deteriorating for years, leading many to worry about the future of that evening as a source of original entertainment. (Cable networks are starting to make their mark on the night, but more on that later.)
NBC has seen a spike in the ratings on Friday this season thanks to its recent coverage of the Winter Olympics, but ABC, CBS and Fox are all down year to year. CBS’ deteriorating combination of scripted dramas Ghost Whisperer, Medium and Numb3rs have dipped by an average of 19 percent in total viewers (from 9.7 million to 7.8 million) and 21 percent among adults 18-49 (from a 2.4 to a 1.9) based on live-plus-7-day ratings from Nielsen Media Research through March 22. ABC’s erosion—down 5 percent in total viewers to 5.4 million and 11 percent among adults 18-49 to a 1.6—is less severe, but Friday remains the second-lowest-rated night of the week (behind Saturday) for both networks. Friday, meanwhile, is the weakest link for Fox, with a 21 percent drop in total viewers to 4.4 million and a 12 percent dip among adults 18-49 to a 1.5.
The CW actually has more pressing issues than Friday. But since Smallville moved from Thursday to Friday, the veteran drama has suffered double-digit losses. Even NBC’s canceled The Jay Leno Show dipped to its lowest ratings of the week on Friday.
“Since the advent of people meters and the emphasis on adults 18-49, the audience advertisers covet is just not readily available on Friday or Saturday,” points out Jeff Bader, evp, planning, scheduling and distribution, ABC Entertainment Group. “Economically, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to assemble an aggressive night of programming on both nights similar to earlier in the week simply because of the lack of target viewers and weaker advertiser support. The desirable audience is just not available.”
“It’s a catch-22,” adds Adgate. “The more the networks shy away from both evenings, the less advertisers want to support it. And the absence of significant advertiser support doesn’t exactly give the broadcast networks an incentive to be more productive.”