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Saturday Nights Lose Their Luster

May 23, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The broadcast networks have stopped investing in original entertainment programming for Saturday nights, when their viewership has dropped from a combined average of 47 million total viewers during the 1995-96 television season to 33.5 million in the 2004-05 season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Over the same time frame, the percentage of homes and persons using television held at 55.4 percent and 35.1 percent of the U.S. TV universe, respectively.

The increasing tendency of Saturday night stay-at-homes to watch movies on DVD or cable has helped turn the night into “the loneliest night of the week” for network programmers, said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, explaining why his network is planning to continue using repeats of its growing crime procedurals arsenal to program the two hours leading into “48 Hours Mystery.”

While NBC is calling Saturday a movie night, it will program Saturday nights with a mix of network premieres of theatrical movies and some entertainment series repeats.

Fox Broadcasting will stick with the reliable lineup of “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

Of all the major networks, ABC remains the most fully committed to running theatricals on Saturday night, even though theatricals don’t draw as reliably as they did in less competitive times.

Indeed, only four theatricals aired on the six broadcast networks last year drew more than 10 million viewers: “Ocean’s Eleven” (11.6 million viewers for CBS), “Shrek” (10.4 million for NBC), “Spider-Man” (10.4 million for Fox) and “The Santa Clause” (10.4 million for ABC).

“Ocean’s Eleven” was also the top theatrical draw among viewers 18 to 49, followed closely by NBC’s broadcast of “The Family Man.” Each scored a 4 rating in the 18 to 49 demo, with “Eleven” earning a slightly larger share.

But as the power of the televised theatrical decreases, so does the cost of the network broadcast rights. The rule of thumb used to be that a network would have to pony up about 15 percent of a movie’s box office take. Now, said Jeff Bader, the ABC Entertainment executive VP whose responsibilities include scheduling and film acquisition, the cable and broadcast rights together are likely to add up to 15 percent of the box office, with cable paying the bigger chunk.

Mr. Bader said ABC’s first-run package for the 2005-06 season includes “Finding Nemo,” “Old School,” “Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle,” “Freaky Friday,” “Signs,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” “Bringing Down the House,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Road to Perdition” and “Seabiscuit.”

He said that there are no hard and fast rules to be drawn from last season’s Saturday night movie, which sometimes included stablemate movies running under the “Wonderful World of Disney” banner. However, Mr. Bader said, “Anything with Tom Hanks is a good bet,” theatricals’ audiences “tend to peak in the 10 o’clock hour” and, “A good, broad theatrical will probably outperform the [series] repeats.”

On the made-for-TV-movie front, CBS, once the home to weepers and creepers aimed at women, changed tack in midseason to compete with ABC’s suddenly femme-friendlier lineup by programming a hard-bitten and stubbled Tom Selleck, “Spring Break: Shark Attack” and a new biopic about Elvis Presley.

How well did that work? Despite the attack of “Desperate Housewives,” said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, “We equaled our performance of last season.”