- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

NEW YORK - The state of network television on Saturday nights has become so dire that ABC essentially has put a prime-time slot up for auction to anyone who has a compelling idea — as long as it’s done very cheaply.

ABC has put out the word to Hollywood producers that a Saturday-night home is available to a program that can be made for no more than $500,000 an episode, which is about a quarter of what the traditional comedy or drama costs.

“Because it’s Saturday night, they’re willing to try things that they wouldn’t try at midweek,” says Jeff Bader, ABC’s head of scheduling.

Saturday has become the forgotten night for broadcasters, who aren’t sure what to do there anymore. They just know it’s not worth spending much to seek an audience that clearly has other plans.

“It’s the loneliest night of the week for network television and television in general,” says Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive vice president for scheduling.

Except for occasional specials, CBS’ “48 Hours Mysteries” is the only original Saturday-night program on the major broadcast networks this season. Fox has run “COPS” and “America’s Most Wanted” on Saturday for years; the WB and UPN don’t broadcast.

Viewers with long memories know it wasn’t always this way. “Gunsmoke,” “Perry Mason,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Golden Girls” and “Touched by an Angel” are among the classic series that originally aired on Saturday evenings.

You could make a strong argument that during the early 1970s, CBS on Saturday night had the single best night of prime-time TV ever: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”

Saturday night — date night — was never the most popular night for TV, but the decline in viewership caught momentum with the advent of cable television, particularly when HBO scheduled its showcase movies for Saturday evenings. Meanwhile, the popularity of home videos and DVDs gave viewers still more options, says David Poltrack, chief researcher at CBS.

Since 2000, Saturday-night network-TV viewership has dropped 39 percent, compared to 16 percent for the seven nights in total, according to Nielsen Media Research.

So far this season, the four networks combined average 23.1 million viewers on Saturday, less than a typical episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” or “Desperate Housewives” gets on other nights.

Along with viewers, advertisers who are increasingly adept at targeting an audience are shying away from Saturdays, Mr. Metcalf says. “They want to get their messages out before the weekend starts, before people make their purchasing decisions for the weekend,” he says. “By Saturday, that ship has sailed.”

Lately, it’s a classic chicken-or-egg argument: Are the viewers fleeing because the networks aren’t offering much, or are the networks abandoning Saturdays because they sense viewers’ lack of interest?

Networks began dialing back early this decade. Saturday became “movie night,” but even that rarely works because people are impatient watching movies clogged with commercials. With shows such as “The District” and “Hack,” CBS bragged two years ago that it was the only network still in business on Saturday, but that didn’t last.

Now it’s mostly reruns.

“I’d like to think we all tried,” says Kelly Kahl, head of CBS’ scheduling department. “We held out probably a little longer, but the choices at some point just become overwhelming.”

CBS wraps its reruns in a nice bow: It calls two hours “Crimetime Saturday.” It airs episodes of procedural dramas such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and gets about the same modest ratings as it did with original shows and even does better among young viewers, Mr. Poltrack says. As a result, the network makes a nice profit on a night when it used to lose money.

Besides movies and NASCAR races, NBC has found Saturday to be a comfortable home for its “Law & Order” franchise. This year it has taken a cue from HBO and is using the night to give viewers a second chance to catch on with its new series. A week ago, NBC ran three straight episodes of “My Name Is Earl,” and it also has showcased “Surface.”

“People’s lives are so busy, and there are so many new shows to watch,” Mr. Metcalf says. “The key is to pick shows that are showing signs of growth, or that people are talking about and there are good reviews.”

For the past few weeks, ABC has given fans of “Lost” a second chance to keep up with that story. It also has aired repeats of “Invasion,” Desperate Housewives” and “Commander in Chief.”

As the force behind Saturday’s island of original programming, “48 Hours Mysteries” executive producer Susan Zirinsky says she’s happy to be scheduled then. How many times, she asks, have you been home on a Saturday night and surfed aimlessly through the channels looking for something new?

“We’re promising a fresh apple pie at 10 o’clock,” she says.

Experimentation, along the lines of what ABC is planning, might be the only other recourse on Saturday nights.

ABC has set no boundaries for the suggestions it seeks: The shows could be reality, scripted, news, sports, whatever, Mr. Bader says.

“We use the summer to experiment,” he says. “Well, Saturday can be our summer every week.”

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