It's with something approaching surprise and sadness that I read the news that - now that Fox appears to be considering moving Cops from its long-standing Saturday night slow - America's broadcast networks appear to have abandoned Saturday nights as venues for original programming. How, exactly, did that happen?
Perhaps the reason that the news seems so strange and unexpected to me is because I come from the U.K., where Saturday night is a big night - maybe even the biggest - for television. I'm sure there are sociological reasons for this, cultural differences that make Saturday a more acceptable night to watch TV in the U.K. than it is in America, but I'll admit to being suspicious that the real answer comes down to the all-important advertisers and their favorite demographics. After all, Saturday is the weekend, which means that the young kids should be out and partying - or, at the very least, in movie theaters - instead of sitting around at home, watching reruns of The Ghost Whisperer or whatever else is being shown on network television at the time, right…? Whereas, in the U.K., it feels as if Saturday is the night when - freed of the work week and whatever Friday night socializing happened - people can gather 'round the television for three distinct stages of viewing, each one with a different demographic and schedule (Family viewing, 5pm - 7pm; Variety show/game show/Television equivalent of easy listening viewing, 7pm - 9pm; Some kind of drama for grown-ups, 9pm - 11pm). It's very formulaic, but also something that feels like it could easily be repurposed here in the U.S.
See, here's the thing: Even if the "traditional" core audiences aren't available on Saturday evenings, that's no reason to give up on original programming altogether. Instead, the obvious thing to do is focus on intentionally niche programming based on those audiences who are still around. If network television is occasionally criticized for trying to appeal too broadly to anyone and everyone who might want to tune in - and it is, continually - then why not try to shake up that expectation and create programming that ignores particular audiences, safe and secure in the likelihood that they're probably not around at that time, anyway?
Exactly what this programming would end up being, I admit to being vague and unsure about; the British route of reintroducing a variety show, perhaps, has a certain appeal to it, and is the kind of thing that might appeal to an older demographic. Or, maybe, dramas or comedies based at audiences who normally wouldn't make the coveted 18-34 marketing target (Something like Up All Night feels like it's approaching this idea of micro-targeting audiences, as "broadly" funny as it can be. That said, imagine that show but aged up 20 years, with a Regan and Chris after their daughter has gone to college. Or, for that matter, how would another NBC show, Parenthood, fare on a Saturday night…?).
It's possible that attempting this plan would just lead to a different flavor of disaster than usual. After all, networks have run original programming on weekend evenings before in recent years without any noticeable draw for viewers whatsoever (I swear, I was the only person who liked Persons Unknown, it feels like). The problem may have been that the shows sentenced to Saturdays were already judged to be "failures" by the time they debuted in that timeslot, or were - let's be honest - not worth watching, for the most part. What would happen if networks made a point to try and make Saturday evenings a destination for niche audiences, I wonder? Would the lure of the shows work, or would the idea that Saturday Is For Losers scare everyone away no matter what? All it would take is one brave/crazy network exec to find out…