There's probably not a TV critic around who hasn't banged out a quick column bemoaning the lousy state of Saturday night TV. You can harumph and harangue with impunity. No viewer will disagree.
How dare those networks neglect a perfectly good night of the week! Why can't they program Saturday night like they did in the 1970s? Archie and Edith. Mary and Rhoda. Those were the days!
I have done this myself, but not to worry. I'm not going to do it again. This is an inquiry into what happened to Saturday night TV and what, if anything, might be done to rejuvenate it. There will be no harumphing.
First off, it bears pointing out that while Saturday night has often been more enticing than it is today, with its grab bag of low-impact dramas ("Touched by an Angel," "The District"), movies, movies, more movies, and "Cops," it's not historically TV's big night. It has a low HUT (homes using television) level because it's the night people are most likely to go out.
"The viewing level has always been a little lower on Saturday night because of competing activities," says David Poltrack, CBS Television's executive vice president for research and planning. "But there were always shows on that night that were extraordinarily well-received."
Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," "The Honeymooners," "Get Smart," "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Love Boat," to name a few, all made their marks on Saturday nights. But the glorious critical mass that prime-time Saturday attained in the mid-1970s, when "All in the Family" and "The Carol Burnett Show" book-ended three hours of peerless comedy, was only a fortunate coincidence. As Poltrack points out, CBS eventually moved Archie Bunker and company to Sunday night, when there's a larger audience available.
For viewers old enough to recall it, that stretch of years when the Bunkers anchored CBS' Saturday lineup is the yardstick by which great nights of TV are measured -- and a grail to be regained. The 1973-74 roster in particular -- "All in the Family" followed by "M*A*S*H," followed by the Moore, Bob Newhart and Burnett shows -- is arguably as close to a perfect slate of series a network has ever offered.
Networks use a slightly different scoring system. Popular success counts more than critical effusion. By their measure, the mid-1980s NBC lineup anchored by "The Golden Girls" and "Hunter" was a Saturday triumph, as was the early-'90s CBS schedule that included "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."
But even during these debatably "golden" eras, series programming in general on Saturday night was going downhill. There were scattered hits, yes, but also fewer options offered by the broadcast networks. The most popular series currently on Saturday night is CBS' "The District," 39th in Nielsen's season-to-date tally. CBS is the only network with a full series lineup on Saturdays.
The culprits, if that's the right term, are cable, home video and the preference of advertisers, and thus networks, for younger and wealthier viewers. They are also the most likely to go out on Saturday nights. If they do stay home, they're probably watching cable, not broadcast fare.
Even if demographic distinctions weren't so important now, Saturday night doesn't have the same strategic importance to advertisers as midweek nights, especially Thursday.
"(That's) when everyone wants to advertise to the young, upper-socio-economic audience," CBS' Poltrack says. "They're planning their weekends -- not just whether they're going to go to the movies but whether they're going to go to the mall and buy the high-definition television they've been wanting. People who are in the market for automobiles tend to go to the showroom and look around for cars on Saturday, so Thursday and Friday are when you want to get that audience as well.
"Even if the shows on Saturday night were to get the same ratings as the shows that are currently on Thursday night get, just the fact that they're on Saturday night would make them be less valuable," Poltrack says. "If you took all of Thursday night and put it on Saturday night, there wouldn't be as many advertising dollars chasing it."
Saturday night may never regain its 1970s luster, but that's not to say it won't ever get interesting again. Laura Caraccioli, vice president and director of Starcom Entertainment, a Chicago ad agency, sees Saturday night as "valuable real estate" the networks can't afford to neglect. Among the options she thinks the networks should consider:
Inexpensive reality-based shows like the Learning Channel's "Trading Spaces," which has illuminated a niche audience that a broadcast network might enlarge.
More "re-purposing": ABC might mix and match six sitcoms from its midweek lineups on Saturday, or NBC might have its newly acquired Bravo to schedule its Saturday night.
Advertiser-produced programs, a return of sorts to the era of "Philco Playhouse" and "G.E. Theater."
Resurrected "franchises," an example of which would be NBC's recent "Hunter" movie, almost certainly the first of a string.