Day 461: Friday Night Lights-Out

originally published April 5, 2013

Are you planning on watching TV tonight?

Sorry, that was a rather personal and forward question, but I assure you, I’m only trying to survey the bleak and unloved landscape of a network TV Friday night. Purely for scientific reasons. You see, network executives have held Friday night with a degree of disdain for years. For the past three decades it has either been a deathtrap where shows were sent to die against unbeatable competition, or else it has been a vacuum. Viewers either don’t stay at home on Fridays, or else they use that night to get caught up on pay-per-view movies or PVR’ed programs they’d missed.

Hence the term Friday Night Death Slot.

(for reasons that will soon become obvious, most images that turn up in a Google search for this term feature the show Fringe)

The history of this phenomenon dates back to the 1960’s. When Star Trek failed to perform well in the ratings, NBC could have cut off its head and slapped something new in its place. But the network had begun looking at demographic profiles a few years earlier, and they knew the young crowd – the ones with the disposable income that advertisers love – dug the show. Then, in one of many acts of idiocy in NBC’s long and textured history, they moved the show to Friday nights for season two.

Everyone knew that ratings among younger people dropped significantly on the weekend; the kids were busy growing their hair, smoking their pot and inventing the sexual revolution. Gene Roddenberry fought to have the show moved to Monday or Tuesday nights, but season three found Trek once again fighting for Friday night viewers. There was no season four.

In the 80’s and 90’s, Friday nights belonged to ABC’s T.G.I.F. lineup. These were family-friendly sitcoms – ideal for kids too young to have an active social life and adults who were shackled to their TV sets by the agonizing anchor of domestic life, their children yanking and tugging on their legs, dragging them deep into the abyss of… woah, I hope my kids don’t read this.

Anyway, Friday nights on ABC were unbeatable. Shows like Perfect Strangers, Mr. Belvedere, Full House, Family Matters, Step By Step, Boy Meets World and Dinosaurs all regularly won their timeslots. It didn’t matter that many of those shows – and I’m speaking objectively here – were awful. They catered perfectly to the audience who was home watching TV on Friday nights, and that meant that anything the other networks threw against them was bound to lose.

CBS tried to give ABC a good run for its ad money. In 1992 they gathered up their comedy gold and plopped it down opposite T.G.I.F. in an effort to win over the laughing crowd. Designing Women and Major Dad had been huge Monday night hits, and it seemed logical that Golden Palace, the spin-off of NBC’s successful Golden Girls, and a brand new Bob Newhart sitcom would also win audiences. Well…. no. The two established hits tanked in the ratings, and nobody wanted to watch Golden Girls without Bea Arthur. All three shows were axed at the end of the season. Bob was able to survive a few months into the 93-94 season, but that’s it.

They tried again in 1997. Disney had taken over ABC and saturated its T.G.I.F. night with more kid-friendly fare, so CBS scooped up two cancelled ABC hits (Family Matters and Step By Step), used them to bracket two new comedies (Meego and The Gregory Hines Show – yeah, I don’t remember them either), and dropped the CBS Block Party as their new Friday feature. The party was over after just one season. They’d dented ABC’s ratings, but not enough to allow any of those shows to survive past the 97-98 season.

Once the T.G.I.F. crowd had petered out, ABC also began to use Friday night as the dumping ground for shows on their way out. The Hughleys spent their second and final season on Friday nights. 8 Simple Rules was tossed there after John Ritter died and the network knew there was no saving the show. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was a feel-good hit on Sundays – when it was moved to Fridays in 2011, it was doomed. Ugly Betty met a similar fate, getting tossed into the Friday pit for its fourth and final season.

Even UPN got in on the Friday Death Slot action when they bumped Enterprise there for its fourth season. One source close to the show claims the move was an intentional plot to assassinate the series, as UPN knew the ratings would be garbage. Even with $30 million raised in a campaign to save the show for a fifth season, the network wouldn’t budge.

(if only Scott Bakula had Quantum-Leapt into a UPN executive’s body, he could have saved the show.)

The king of the Friday Night Death Slot is none other than Fox. Here’s a run-down of some of the shows Fox has lined up before the Friday Night firing squad:

Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles (second and final season)

Dark Angel (second and final season)

Don’t Forget The Lyrics (third and final season)

Boston Public (fourth and final season)

The Bernie Mac Show (fifth and final season)

Malcolm In The Middle (seventh and final season)

And don’t even get fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly started – that cult hit was dropped onto Fridays for its first and only (and abbreviated) season. Fans are a little sensitive about that one.

(at least Fox had the good sense to murder Family Guy by constantly lining it up next to whatever was the most popular show on any other network at the time)

Fringe got shuffled from Thursday to Friday mid-way through its third season. It survived for a fourth season but was never nudged back to a night when its audience would be watching. Fans of this show would have been happy to see it achieve an X-Files-length run, but Fox wasn’t going to keep paying for a show that wasn’t getting numbers. On the plus side, the network got some love from critics when they renewed Fringe for a short fifth season in order to allow the show to reach 100 episodes (and thus get sold into syndication) and for the writers to wrap up their complex storyline.

Tonight’s slate of shows may break the Death Slot cycle, or they may perpetuate it – time will tell. Happy Endings never really found its audience on Wednesdays; its new day and time might spell its demise (which would be a shame). Other shows like Vegas, Blue Bloods, Touch, and Grimm may end up on a list like this, or they may become the anomaly of a Friday night survivor.

Myself, I’ll be catching up on Game of Thrones. Priorities, you know.

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