Successfully programming Friday prime time, once a relatively simple task for the broadcast networks, has become a greater exercise in futility than scheduling Saturday nights.
Friday prime time has devolved into the lowest-viewed night of the week. It’s gotten so bad that ABC is considering reinventing its once-powerful, all-family TGIF lineup. The six broadcast networks have experienced an overall 14 percent ratings slide on Friday evenings among adults 18 to 49 over the past 10 years, from a 16.1 rating during the 1991-92 season to the current 13.9.
In fact, Friday’s PUT (people using television) levels among adults 18 to 49-which are averaging a 32.5 rating this season for the entire TV universe (broadcast and cable)-are down 5 percent (from a 34.5 rating) over the 10-year span, making it a lower-viewing-level night than Saturday. (See chart.)
PUT levels among adults 18 to 49 over the past five years have actually gone up 9 percent (from a 29.9 rating), and overall HUT (households using television) levels have moved up 6 percent during the same span (56.4 rating vs. 53.0). Meanwhile, a 4 percent drop in overall broadcast network shares over the same five years indicates a growing viewer migration to cable.
“Lifestyle situations continue to evolve, but it’s safe to say that kids, teens and adults 18 to 49 are watching more cable network options-things like Nickelodeon, MTV and ESPN are still taking eyeballs from the broadcast networks,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for New York station rep firm Katz Television Group.
But the momentum is not entirely on cable’s side, Mr. Carroll said. “Those same kids and teens that watched `Family Matters’ and `Sabrina’ [on ABC’s TGIF lineup] are now watching `Sabrina’ and `Reba’ on The WB, so I don’t think they’ve just gone away from broadcast [to cable].”
Teens and kids PUT levels have remained fairly consistent over the past five years. The teens 12 to 17 PUT level is averaging a 23.7 rating on Friday evenings this season, down 6 percent from the 1997-98 season (25.3 rating). Among the Big 4 broadcast networks, the 6.2 rating among teens for 2001-02 has slid 67 percent from an 18.8 during 1991-92. The numbers show many teens turning to cable networks.
Viewing among kids 2 to 11 has changed a minimal 1 percent over the five years (25.3 rating vs. 25.6 rating). But when the focus is on the Big 4, their current 5.4 rating in kids 2 to 11 represents a seismic 70 percent drop from its average 10 years ago (21.0), also pointing to a clear migration to cable.
“It just really seems to be an uphill battle to get adults 18 to 49, teens and kids away from their other outside diversions,” said Tim Spengler, senior VP of national broadcast for Initiative Media North America. “However, a lot of our advertisers are still looking for all-family environments to buy on the pre-weekend lineups, so if the broadcast networks can figure how to get those kids back from Nickelodeon or the video games, they’d get some of our business back.”
It is no revelation that NBC’s drama lineup-led by “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”-is the only significant Friday night ratings draw among the six broadcast networks. The slide has been particularly precipitous for ABC, which once owned the evening with its branded TGIF sitcom lineup. But it abandoned kids, teens and all-family viewers two years ago in an ill-fated attempt to reach the shrinking number of adults 18 to 49 in the broadcast universe.
ABC executives have recently hinted that they are likely to return to the TGIF lineup next season. In fact, ABC has a bevy of all-family comedies in development, such as “Legally Blonde,” “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter,” “The Funkhousers” and “Regular Joe,” among the pilots currently in consideration. ABC is also developing some family-oriented dramas, including “Nancy Drew,” that could go for Friday or another night.
After seeing comedies “The Ellen Show” and “Danny” (formerly “American Wreck”) fail to gain meaningful viewership in the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. (ET) Friday time slots, CBS abruptly changed direction at midseason. On March 29, it launched the much-ballyhooed “AFP: American Fighter Pilots” reality series, garnering a 1.4 rating/8 share average in adults 18 to 49 and 4.8 million total viewers, making it the least-watched Friday debut for the network since 1991. That same night, 9 p.m. midseason drama “First Monday” (1.5/5, 6.3 million viewers) and 10 p.m. newsmagazine “48 Hours” (1.3/4, 4.0 million viewers) similarly hit personal worsts.
For the season, CBS’s 2.1 rating average among adults 18 to 49 has suffered 38 percent and 50 percent decreases from its averages last season (3.4 rating) and 10 years ago (4.2 rating), respectively. Inserting a military-oriented reality series such as “AFP” nevertheless had researchers such as Mr. Carroll and Magna Global USA’s Steve Sternberg questioning the wisdom of placing a male-driven show on a night on which female demographics are somewhat more dominant.
“This just strikes me as more of a temporary setback for CBS, because they have proved in recent seasons that shows like `CSI’ and `Everybody Loves Raymond’ could be launched on Fridays,” said Mr. Sternberg, senior VP/director of audience analysis for Magna Global. “Both shows have broad female- and male-demo appeal, but CBS had even found some success programming dramas `Nash Bridges’ on the night, and that was more male-oriented.”
David Poltrack, CBS’s executive VP of research and programming, expressed some concern about “AFP’s” early returns but also noted the network knows it could “successfully plant” a drama such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on a Friday, where it blossomed into a 9 p.m. Thursday time period winner in all adult demos and total viewers this season.
“I think you can definitely make hit scripted shows on Friday, and we have a lot of dramas in development [for next season], so there’s no reason why they can’t work there again,” Mr. Poltrack added.
Mr. Sternberg and Mr. Carroll think CBS may have been looking at “AFP” as male-oriented counterprogramming to NBC’s “Providence,” which wins the 8 p.m. hour in adults 18 to 49 but has slipped 6 percent year to year (3.3/11 vs. 3.7/12). Although NBC sources said it is likely that “Providence” will be renewed for another season, the Peacock’s strength on the night has come from the 10 p.m. run of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which has seen its 5.1/15 average in adults 18 to 49 and 15.3 million total viewers improve 6 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Even if female viewers are a staple of Friday viewing (as well as of most other nights of the week on TV), Fox’s move of the Jessica Alba-led “Dark Angel” from Tuesday to Friday has been a tough transition. The specially bred femme fatale is finding it hard to draw either gender, with “Dark Angel’s” 2.8/9 average in adults 18 to 49 down 47 percent from its average last season in the 9 p.m. Tuesday slot (5.3/13). Male adult 18 to 49 viewership, at a 3.0/10 average this season, is still about 20 percent ahead of female shares (2.8/8). Much of the loss is being attributed to the flight of young men to cable options or to video games and bar hopping.
“`Dark Angel’ might have been too young and could still work on another night, because Fridays seem to be when the boys go out and play,” Mr. Spengler concluded.