I decided this week to take a break from Missouri and cover a topic of a more general nature. Growing up, Saturday night television was something to watch. You had shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and Emergency. When I grew into an adult there were shows like Golden Girls and Empty Nest. While the years that followed those shows going off the air did not provide the same quality of TV viewing there were still shows like Doctor Quinn: Medicine Woman and Walker Texas Ranger. Not many years after Golden Girls went off the air something happened. They stopped showing sitcoms on the Big Three networks (for you youngsters that was NBC, CBS, and ABC) on Saturday night and turned to hour long dramas. As a result the viewing was not as good, and many folks like me stopped watching network television on Saturday nights. By 1992, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times broadcast network viewing on Saturday night was at 49% of the total TV viewing audience. That was down from 75% ten years before ( http://articles.latimes.com/1992-12-18/entertainment/ca-2065_1_night-people). At the time this was blamed on people tuning into cable networks, watching video tapes, and watching syndicated programming on local stations. The thing is, why were people watching other things on TV than the three old networks? It is easy to blame this or that, but in my opinion had the networks been giving us quality programming folks never would have turned their television sets to something other than NBC, CBS, or ABC.
After all, the networks had always retired old shows and brought in new ones on Saturday night having to rebuild viewership each time. From 1973 to 1975 CBS held Saturday night with a series of hit shows. Depending on the year these ranked from being the number one show on television (All in the Family in the 1973-1974 and 1974-1975 seasons) to number twenty nine. Saturday night was a big night for CBS. At the end of the 1974-1975 season, All in the Family went off the air, and CBS lost some ground on Saturday night. It remained a descent night for them until 1978 when they ran only two sitcoms and a movie starting in November of that year. By that time ABC had The Love Boat and Fantasy Island both ranking in the top 25 shows in viewership while NBC had CHiPs at number 25. The Love Boat continued to get good ratings until 1984 when it dipped in viewership. The 1984-1985 there were no shows on Saturday night in the top 30. Yet, the next season NBC took the night with four sitcoms among the top 30 shows in viewership. From then until 1990 NBC had at least three shows in the top 30 shows in viewership each season. Even in 1991, a year before the Los Angeles Times article was written NBC had three shows that were on Saturday night in the top 40 shows in viewership for the season, But in the 1992-1993 there were no shows on Saturday night that were in the top 40 shows for the season, The closest was Empty Nest at number 45. What happened? For one thing The Golden Girls which had been the highest rated show on Saturday night from 1985 until then had went off the air, and NBC had not premiered anything that could replace it, and Empty Nest had outlived its time. After the 1991-1992 season, there would never be more than two shows a season in the top 40 shows. Most years there were only one, and some years not a one. The problem I believe was that the networks were not programming quality shows that viewers wanted to watch. The only exceptions were Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, Touched by an Angel, and Walker Texas Ranger (though some folks might debate its quality it was popular). After the 1998-1999 season, no show on Saturday night would rank in the top 20 shows for viewership for the season. After the 2004-2005 season, the three old networks had stopped airing original shows unless they were shows they had given up on and were merely allowing to complete their runs.
It has been argued that the three old networks stopped airing original shows on Saturday night due to a loss in viewers. The viewers according to many were lost to the cable networks and DVDs. The thing is, why were these viewers lost? The viewing audience on Saturday night is admittedly older. It is perhaps the lowest night of viewership for the coveted 18-34 audience. This was confirmed by a study done in 1955 by NBC. However, that study also found that there were many folks at home that would watch TV if the right programming were provided. On April 29, 2012 Saturday night shows totaled approximately 20 million viewers for the broadcast networks. By comparison, on April 22, 2012, a Sunday night. shows total viewership was about 28 million viewers for the networks. Sunday night is considered the night with the largest number of viewers while Saturday night is considered the lowest. The difference is considerable, but considering three of the shows were reruns on that Saturday night while only one for that Sunday may make all the difference. The average number of viewers for that Sunday night per show was about 6.8 million. This number may sound considerable, but consider the premiere episode of Doctor Who September 1, 2012 on the BBC was 6.4 million viewers on a Saturday night and this in a nation with a much smaller population than the United States. The difference is that the British networks have not given up on Saturday night. The British networks still air shows on Saturday night that will attract viewers such as their version of X-Factor. Imagine if American Idol were on Saturday.The American networks ceased airing quality shows in the 1990s on Saturday night. Where we once got shows like All in the Family and The Golden Girls, we began getting shows like The Mommies and Café Americain. When those failed, the broadcast networks went to hour long dramas which historically had performed worse than sitcoms on Saturday night. And the hour longs were not particularly appealing to an older audience. Shows like Freaks and Geeks, Dark Skies, and Pretender definitely did not suit an older audience's tastes. And when the majority of the hour longs failed they ceased original programming on Saturday night altogether blaming not their own bad programming mistakes, but a shrinking viewing audience.
The truth is there are still plenty of viewers to make a show successful on Saturday night. Twenty million viewers is nothing to sneeze at. But the networks would have to do a few things. First off, use the formula of four sitcoms and one hour long. This is what worked for CBS in the 1973-1974 season and it worked again for NBC in the 1985-1986 season. Second, the shows must be tailored for an older audience. All in the Family and The Golden Girls got good ratings because they appealed to older audiences. So did all the other shows that did well on Saturday night. Finally, to get advertisers the networks would have to make a point that they could reach viewers they may not reach another night. Older adults are more likely to buy big ticket items like cars, and the networks could work to gain auto manufacturers to advertise on Saturday night. There is no reason why Saturday night cannot again be a viable night for the broadcast networks. While they may never get the ratings they once did, they can perhaps get good enough ratings to warrant airing original programming. The sad fact is though, they will probably never take the chance.