Saturday night is the new Friday night for Starz original programming, reflecting some new thinking about what used to be television’s loneliest night of the week.
The premium channel will debut new episodes of all future original series on Saturday night, which is growing in popularity as a home for scripted cable programming.
Hallmark Channel’s original drama Cedar Cove and AMC’s Western-themed Hell on Wheels are finding viewers on a night that in recent years has mostly offered movies, repeats and episodes of lowrated shows.
Starz in the past has launched all of its previous series — including the Spartacus franchise, Boss and Magic City — on Friday nights, devoting Saturday to first-run Hollywood movie premieres. The premium network switched its strategy earlier this month with the introduction of period drama The White Queen on Aug. 3.
The 10-part series, set against the backdrop of England’s Wars of the Roses, drew 2.4 million on Aug. 17 in its second week of Saturday runs after drawing 2.1 million viewers in its premiere weekend airings. That matched the network’s record April launch of Da Vinci’s Demons, officials said.
AVOID THE CROWDS
The idea was to showcase original fare on a night with relatively little competition, Starz executive vice president of program planning David Baldwin said.
Saturdays were a major destination for original content in the 1970s, with shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show and The Love Boat. But Saturday HUT (homes using television) levels are among the lowest of the week, and advertiser-coveted 18-to-34-year-old viewers have virtually abandoned TV on Saturday nights in favor of other entertainment choices or pursuits outside the home, programmers said.
“It’s a night that has had a stink to it the last two to three decades, but in the premium world it’s a lot different,” Baldwin said, as both Showtime and HBO offer a heavy dose of pro boxing on Saturday evenings, along with movies.
Showtime and HBO air most of their original scripted series in a crowded primetime Sunday environment, which Baldwin said provides Starz with an opening on Saturday nights.
The network will debut five-part miniseries Dancing on the Edge on Saturday, Oct. 19, and Michael Bayproduced pirate drama Black Sails will premiere on Saturdays in January of 2014.
“I think we’re going to own Saturday nights with original scripted content, and I don’t think anyone is going to come chase us there with original product,” he added. “Saturday night is series night on Starz.”
Baldwin said the network’s loss earlier this year of first-run Walt Disney Studios movie titles to Netflix beginning in 2016 did not factor into the decision. “I would have done the same move if we had HBO’s movie deal with the three majors,” he said.
Starz isn’t the only network targeting Saturday nights. Hallmark Channel’s first scripted series, Cedar Cove, has found an audience among the network’s core adult 25-54 viewers since launching July 23 with 2.6 million viewers. Overall, five first-run Saturday airings of the Andie MacDowell-starrer have been seen by more than 7.9 million viewers, according to Hallmark.
Crown Media Family Networks CEO Bill Abbott said Saturdays have been fertile for Hallmark’s original movies, but Cedar Cove’s performance shows there is an audience looking for scripted fare that night, too.
“There’s no question that [Saturday-night] HUT levels are not at the levels as on Sunday night — it’s probably 30% to 40% lower in terms of available audience,” he said. “But we’re thrilled with Cedar Cove. It’s indicative of the appetite for this kind of content.”
Abbott said Hallmark will also look at other nights to launch future scripted fare. It’s unclear which night the network will choose for its second scripted series, When Calls the Heart, which bows in January 2014.
“Down the road, we will move into a strategy that has more of our original content during the week, but for now we wanted to establish ourselves in the original content series and we wanted to make sure our audience knew we were in this genre,” he said. “Viewers have been accustomed to coming to our network for quality original programming for over a decade, so we thought that the success we’ve had with our movies would give us an opportunity to own Saturday.”
AMC took an even bigger risk earlier this month when it moved established Sunday-night series Hell on Wheels to Saturdays for its third season. But viewership wasn’t hurt: the series averaged 2.4 million viewers in its Aug. 10 debut, on par with last season’s average, according to Tom Halleen, executive vice president of programming and scheduling at AMC Networks.
With little competition on Saturday nights and AMC’s built in audience for Westerns — the network airs a 15- hour block of classic genre series, including The Rifleman, and movies on Saturdays — Halleen said the move wasn’t that hard to make.
“I understand the HUT levels are softer than the other weeknights, and that Saturday nights are considered the hall for banished programs,” he said. “We want to disprove that.”
Executives said that while they expect other networks to take a close look at Saturday nights as a destination for original content, the night might not work for everyone.
“I think there will be some networks that will take their shot at Saturday nights, but the available audience in the younger demos is significantly less,” Hallmark’s Abbott said. “While I think the competition will increase, I don’t anticipate it becoming [as crowded as] Sunday night.”
Starz is the latest network to debut its first-run series on Saturday nights, a timeslot traditionally avoided due to light viewing.