BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just as Arab broadcasters know that people stay in during Ramadan, American broadcasters assume that people go out on Saturday night. Once a night for testing offbeat and experimental shows, now Saturday is a wasteland of reruns, movies, and college football. Mitch Metcalf is NBC's executive vice-president of Scheduling. He says that in the cutthroat world of TV real estate, you build your best hotels where or when you can charge the most rent.
MITCH METCALF: If Thursday is Boardwalk, Saturday is Baltic Avenue.[LAUGHTER]It's the lowest viewed night of the week. [CHUCKLES] And most advertisers like to reach people before the weekend, before big buying decisions are made. That's why Thursday is so popular. By Saturday night, a lot of those decisions have been made. And viewers have lives, and Saturday night is the night they tend to give television a rest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you look at the NBC schedule for October 8th, which I have here, there were three consecutive reruns of "My Name is Earl," followed by a rerun of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." Is it fair to say that everyone has virtually given up on Saturday?
MITCH METCALF: Well, "given up" is an interesting term. We never want to say we'd give up, but we [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about surrender?
MITCH METCALF: [LAUGHS] Maybe a little closer. We have a very limited number of original episodes to program. We have to prioritize the nights. Saturday, it turns out, is the night that gets left out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you do make the point then very well that Saturday seems to have been transformed into a night for promoting the schedule the rest of the week.
MITCH METCALF: Exactly. It's the night for, as we fondly say, repurposing, [BROOKE LAUGHS]. Using repeats of original episodes. And there's a phenomenon called stacking, and that's putting the same program right after another on Saturday. We also did it with a new show called "Surface" after the first two weeks of the season. And what you see whenever you stack programs is that the ratings tend to build. Whoever you can get at 8 o'clock tends to stick around 'cause they're already invested and already watching, and they can catch more of that particular episode.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if you build the stack high enough, it becomes a marathon.
MITCH METCALF: Exactly!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you do on a typical Saturday night?
MITCH METCALF: I have a lovely date with my wife.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MITCH METCALF: It's a night of rest for a television programmer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mitch Metcalf is Executive Vice President for Program Planning and Scheduling at NBC Entertainment. According to the Associated Press, the Saturday night network TV audience has plummeted nearly 40 percent in the last five years. Steven Stark, author of Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that Made us Who we Are Today, says that those who do stay home on Saturday night are largely older, more rural, and poorer than the demographic advertisers now chase. [GUNSMOKE THEME UP AND UNDER] But there was a time, says Stark, when a Saturday night show could corral an audience, and advertisers.
STEVEN STARK: "Gunsmoke" ran on Saturday nights. "Gunsmoke" was a show that appealed more to rural viewers and poorer viewers, as westerns did. "Bonanza" actually premiered on Saturday night. But once they found that they could get a bigger audience with it, that it might transcend the night, so to speak, they moved it to Sunday nights at 9, and then it was the huge hit it was in the mid 60s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying that Saturday night has never served up cutting edge TV. But it did have its own golden age from 1971 to '75. There was "All in the Family": that was the number one show in the country on Saturday at 8 o'clock. [SOUNDTRACK: ARCHIE & EDITH SINGING "THOSE WERE THE DAYS"/AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] Why did that show work in that time slot?
STEVEN STARK: Well, it was very much by accident on CBS. "All in the Family" with Archie Bunker, created by Norman Lear, was not much of a hit in its first season when it was on during the week, although it was enormously controversial, 'cause could you make a joke out of bigotry? They moved it to Saturday nights at 8, and it got a tremendous audience. But remember, by and large, because the overwhelming number of viewers for that show were more conservative, they agreed with everything he was saying.
CARROLL O'CONNOR AS ARCHIE BUNKER: We didn't crawl out from under no rocks. We didn't have no tails and we didn't come from monkeys, you atheistic pinko meathead! [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. But then it was followed by "M*A*S*H" and by "Mary Tyler Moore" and "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Carol Burnett." Certainly M*A*S*H isn't going to appeal to people who may, I think you're suggesting, be more embracing of the kind of message that Archie Bunker offered.
STEVEN STARK: Well, that's very true. What happened is, is that Archie Bunker began to draw liberals as well, people who would actually stay home on Saturday nights to watch him, and they built a schedule around him. Actually somebody wrote, right when "Mary Tyler Moore" came on in the early '70s, that she was so in, actually, that it has become especially fashionable to drift into the den at a party or even go home at 9 on a Saturday because you simply must not miss the program. [MARY TYLER MOORE THEME MUSIC] It became must see viewing, very much like what NBC did in the '80s and '90s on Thursday nights with "Seinfeld" and "Cheers" and things like that. And that golden age of Saturday night programming essentially lasted for the better part of a decade. But then in the '80s and '90s, it-Saturday night-reverted to its usual graveyard status. It's not that the shows didn't draw an audience. "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" was an enormously popular show, as was "The Love Boat," as was "Fantasy Island." But the kind of viewers, again, those shows tended to draw were not the kind that advertisers tend to like, because they want younger viewers. They tend to be more susceptible to advertising than older people, who are more set in their ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so ditto for "The Golden Girls" in the '80s and "Touched by an Angel" in the '90s, you'd say.
STEVEN STARK: They fit the pattern exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they did manage to create a space for attractive, well heeled younger viewers in the 1970s. So why couldn't that happen again?
STEVEN STARK: Well, the networks, first of all, are much more risk averse, because it's a much more cutthroat industry. Having said that, if I were a network executive, everybody's doing one thing, I might try to run a risqué show on Saturday and see if I might be able to attract something of an audience. But it would be hard to get advertisers interested in it in the beginning. Some of the biggest hits in the history of television, whether we're talking about "Roots" or "All in the Family" and "Mary Tyler Moore," attracted an audience because they were willing to try things in a different way, usually, by the way, on the network that was in last place at the time. When they first went to the networks with "Roots," the reason why ABC ran it and the other two wouldn't touch it is they were in third place. And the producer of "Roots" went to the head of the network and said, "Look, you're in third place, if "Roots" doesn't work, you'll still be in third place." So for the network where things aren't working, it might be worth a try.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Steven, thank you very much.
STEVEN STARK: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Stark is a cultural critic whose books include Glued to the Set and his latest, Meet the Beatles. [SOUNDTRACK FROM "THE BOB NEWHART SHOW" BEGINS WITH BOB NEWHART ANSWERING THE TELEPHONE] ["THE BOB NEWHART SHOW" THEME PLAYS]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Katie Holt and Kevin Schlottmann. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. (MUSIC TAG) (FUNDING CREDITS) *****