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Friday Night: The Dark Night of the Soul for Network Television

April 6, 2010

Broadcast TV networks seem to have no idea what to do with Friday night. According to a recent article in Mediaweek, Friday ratings continue to fall well below last year’s already sad numbers. No show, new or old, can seem to gain enough traction to form the basis of a commercially successful line-up on any network.

I found the following quote from NBC VP Mitch Metcalf to be particularly interesting in terms of its implications for what we may see in the near future:

The last thing any of us want to do is abandon the evening. So, the challenge is to keep the night alive, while keeping the costs down. We need to find more creative cost-conscious ways to program Friday, while still trying to fuel some interest in Saturday.

NBC’s joint venture with DirecTV to share both production costs and broadcast rights for Friday Night Lights is cited as one example of these “creative” measures. In this case, such new arrangements are a win for Friday Night Lights’ devoted fan base, as the show now seems to be safe for the time being after prolonged, seemingly monthly threats of cancellation. One has to wonder if Friday night’s paltry, moribund offerings on other networks actually, paradoxically, enabled FNL to live another day.

[Side note: Friday Night Lights’ lack of a wider audience continues to baffle me. Sure, it’s compelling, thoughtful drama—which most TV viewers seem eager to avoid as they flip over to the 38th variation on the “overwrought, farcical, grotesque police procedural” genre. But FNL also has sports action, romantic obsession, and exceptionally pretty people, elements which I assumed would be nearly universally appealing.]

But I’m fairly certain that Metcalf and his ilk aren’t just thinking of creative financing deals for scripted dramas. I’m sure we’ll also see some new, relatively inexpensive unscripted or “reality” shows coming our way. I have to wonder, though, if the big network guys really have what it takes to come up with something people will actually want to watch.

Recent offerings don’t inspire much hope. Despite its Seinfeldian pedigree and its (related?) ability to pull in high-profile guest stars, I’ve found The Marriage Ref to be stunningly bad thus far. I have an odd sense that if I could make it through a couple more episodes, I might reach the point where I’d find this monstrosity to be so awkward and stilted and uncomfortable that I’d actually HAVE to watch it. But I can’t force myself through the agony of watching long enough to break through that wall and acquire the warped taste that would be necessary to become a fan.

So nope, I just don’t think NBC or the other big boys can pull it off. Though they would do well to treat Friday as their existential “dark night of the soul,” I doubt they’ll do enough soul-searching to really come up with sufficiently creative programming ideas to rescue Friday nights.

One suggestion: look to some of the little guys. How about WE tv, best known for its hit Bridezillas, AKA “The Story of People Who Represent Everything That’s Wrong with the World.” If WE can create a hit by presenting these truly detestable people at their worst, then the networks might want to consider following their lead.

Especially after they get a load of WE tv’s slate of upcoming new shows, found in another recent Mediaweek article. How about a show called Sunset Daze that “offers viewers a glimpse at the hard-partying residents of an Arizona retirement community”? Uh, hell yeah! As of April 28 when that awesomeness premieres, WE tv’s got a sure-fire hit on its hands. I’m predicting viewing parties fueled by prune juice Jello shots and oxygen tank huffing from coast to coast (or at least at my house).

Until they abandon their rigid orthodoxy (the kind of thinking that led to The Marriage Ref), will any of the big networks come up with something like Sunset Daze? I highly doubt it. I think it’s time for the big networks to engage in some critical self-assessment of what brought them to this low point on Friday nights. Only then can they take steps—proactive rather than reactive—toward digging their way out of the hole.

  1. PMcD permalink
    April 6, 2010 2:05 pm

    The solution is: Friday Night Videos

    Everyone is drinking away their worries from the week and can’t be bothered with “thinking.” It doesn’t even have to be new shows, just replay the ones from the 80’s. Videos haven’t been that good since then anyway.

  2. April 6, 2010 5:03 pm

    I was going to suggest the same thing. I can see me pouring a drink and plopping down to watch Wham! in all their feathered glory after bustin’ my hump all week.

  3. April 8, 2010 9:57 am

    I’ve never understood why the networks don’t just accept that Friday (the goin’ out night) is going to have lower ratings and use that time to focus on more niche shows, SciFi or Horror series would suit me fine, but whatever. Something that has less than universal appeal certainly can’t compete on a Thursday night, but on a Friday, when everyone’s ratings are lower, I think it could really take off.


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