Forget about the bird flu: Primetime cable viewers have contracted a case of Saturday night fever this TV season. Primetime Saturday-night programming on ad-supported cable has been dancing on the heads of broadcast-network fare during the 2005-06 season, to the tune of a whopping 61.6 share of the household audience.
Through the first nine weeks of the season (Sept. 19 through Nov. 20), cable’s share has grown 8.5%, from 56.8, while the collective share of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC has declined 8%, to 29.7 from 32.2 a year ago, according to a Turner Entertainment Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
CABLE’S BIG NIGHT
Further, cable’s average of 38 million viewers makes Saturday the most-viewed night of the week for the medium, and the industry is siphoning more ad-friendly 18-49 year old viewers from the broadcasters.
All told, cable’s Saturday-night performance ranks 16% above its average weekly 53.3 share. By comparison, the four broadcast networks’ Saturday 29.7 share is 30% below the 42.1 share generated across the week, according to the Turner analysis.
What are viewers watching?
Cable’s mix of original and acquired movies from Turner Network Television, Lifetime Television and FX, college football programming from ESPN and USA Network’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit reruns have become so dominant that CBS, NBC and ABC have all but conceded the night to cable, as those networks are turning to encores of such shows as CSI: Miami, Surface and Lost, respectively, rather than serving up original fare.
Via its presentation of college football, ESPN is the top-ranked network on Saturday nights, averaging 2.9 million viewers, while USA Network’s Law & Order: SVU-dominated schedule (2.1 million) is second.
TNT (1.6 million) with such acquired films as Saving Private Ryan; Lifetime (1.5 million), airing encores of original movies like Human Trafficking; and TBS (1.1 million), with movie fare such as The Wizard of Oz, round out the top five.
Additionally, Sci Fi Channel’s lineup of quirky B-movies like Path of Destruction; Comedy Central’s foul-mouthed elementary kids from South Park; VH1 pop-culture specials like 100 Greatest Kids Stars and; Spike TV’s Ultimate Fighting Championship combat-sport events have also pulled in a significant amount of primetime Saturday night viewers during the period, according to Turner.
Although Saturday produces the week’s lowest households using television (HUT) levels (55.7), USA and Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer said viewership has increased over the years.
“People aren’t running to the box office to the same degree as they once did, and more people are staying home because of the quality of the televisions and the [content], whether live or [recorded on] TiVo,” said Hammer. “With Sci Fi, we’ve capitalized on a huge fan base with what we call our popcorn, fan-based original movies. On USA we know people who are home want escapism and we give them that, most of the time with Law & Order: SVU.”
Those additional viewers are watching cable: Lifetime Television executive vice president of research Tim Brooks said cable is averaging a seven-day best 38 million viewers on Saturday night.
“Cable is, in fact, bigger and better on Saturday night even though it’s the 'lowest viewing night of the week,’ ”he said.
ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions Dave Brown said the appeal of its college-football matchups have propelled the network to a 2.8 rating for 13 telecasts, an increase of 7% over last season’s 2.6 rating for 12 telecasts.
“The competition has never been more fierce, but a really good college football game can cut through a very competitive environment and really deliver good ratings for us.”
CLOSING THE GAP
On a network-to-network basis, broadcasters still command the lion’s share of actual viewers on Saturdays, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said. But the gap is narrowing between the fourth-place broadcast network, ABC, and ESPN.
The sports network’s 2.9 million household mark is less than 1 million behind ABC’s audience of 3.8 million for the night. Last year, the gap between ESPN and then-broadcast laggard CBS was 2.6 million.
Among 18-to-49-year-old viewers, the difference between ABC and ESPN is only 500,000 viewers this season.
“Last year it was a million, so the numbers are clearly declining across the board for the broadcast networks,” Wakshlag noted.
Saturday was once a night that was home to some of broadcast’s best — think All In the Family, The Golden Girls and Touched by an Angel. Nowadays, only Fox, which continues to present new episodes from its long-running Cops and America’s Most Wanted reality franchises, and CBS, with its 48 Hours Mystery series, consistently bow new installments from established or new series on Saturdays.
“The broadcasters, under assault on all sides — from rising costs, rebellious advertisers and cable networks springing up like weeds all around them — have been circling their wagons,” Lifetime’s Brooks said. “When they look to put their limited resources against this sea of trouble that they’re facing, they look at Saturday night as the most abandonable of nights” for original programming.
But CBS senior vice president of communications Chris Ender said the network has not conceded the night to cable. Indeed, CBS’s household share for the night is up 29% compared to the same period last season on the strength of its two-hour “crime time” block of repeated episodes from such series as Without A Trace and NCIS, as well as for 48 Hours Mystery.
“We’re very competitive people and we’ll compete with the best available programming on every night of the week,” Ender said. “The [crime time] 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. block has done very well and 48 Hours has been an unsung success story.”
Fox Broadcasting spokesman Scott Grogan said the network “has had a considerable amount of success with original shows of Cops and America’s Most Wanted and we continue to dominate Saturday night,” referring to the network’s lead position for the night among viewers 18 to 34 and 18 to 49.
SATURDAY NIGHT SCRIPTED?
Even though cable is drawing the lion’s share of Saturday viewers, Wakshlag said the night’s low HUT level makes for a steep hurdle to launching original scripted series.
“You put on original programming where you think you have the biggest opportunity for getting good promotional value, and Sunday and Monday nights are the heavy-viewing nights,” he said. “It’s very difficult to promote a Sunday from a Saturday.”
Despite the odds, Hammer said cable networks shouldn’t rule out launching original live-action, scripted programming on Saturdays — although USA isn’t currently contemplating such a move.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if some of us don’t try it, because there is a loyal audience,” she said. “There are very loyal viewers watching television, and I think it’s ripe for more people to experiment with continuing series on Saturday nights — but it has to be pure escapism.”