Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why NBC Should Bring Back Saturday Night at the Movies

It was on 23 September 1961 that NBC Saturday Night at the Movies debuted. It was a historic moment for American television. Prior to NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, the only films one would see on television were older films before 1950 or slightly more recent B movies. Even then, these films were aired almost exclusively on local stations. It was in 1961 that NBC bought the rights to broadcast 31 films made after 1950 from 20th Century Fox. The first of these to air was How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), starring Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe. While the film was 8 years old, it was far newer than most films shown on television up to that time.

NBC Saturday Night at the Movies proved to be a hit. In fact, it proved so successful that it was not long before ABC and CBS would have their own movie anthology series. The ABC Sunday Night Movie debuted in April 1962. Top rated CBS waited a bit longer before debuting their first movie anthology series--The CBS Thursday Night Movie debuted in September 1965. Regardless, the movie anthology series proved so popular that by 1968 there was one on every night of the week.

Of course, now movie anthology series are nearly unknown on American broadcast television. Indeed, among the first to go was the original NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. The Seventies saw the rise of such premium channels as HBO and Showtime, making it possible for people to watch films on television without having to sit through commercials. Between this and the sheer number of movie anthology series on the networks in the late Sixties and into the Seventies, the ratings for NBC Saturday Night at the Movies dropped over time. NBC cancelled the original movie anthology series in 1978. The other movie anthology series would suffer similar fates, with the advent of the VCR and later DVDs hammering the final nails in their coffins. NBC would attempt to bring back NBC Saturday Night at the Movies during the 2000-2001 season, but it only lasted about a year.

Regardless, it is easy to see why the idea of a movie anthology series on Saturday night appealed to NBC in 1961. Quite simply, relatively recent theatrical films could draw more viewers than standard television shows of the time could have. Traditionally television audiences have been at their lowest on Friday and Saturday nights. To make matters worse, the television audience for Friday and Saturday nights have traditionally been composed of children and the elderly, hardly the 18-49 demographic the networks have wanted since the Seventies. While several hit shows have aired on Saturday night (Gunsmoke, Have Gun--Will Travel, pretty much the entire CBS line up for much of the Seventies, The Golden Girls, and so on), Saturday night has generally been a bit of a problem for the networks. Indeed, in the Naughts the networks simply surrendered the night by airing reruns for the most part, the documentary magazine 48 Hours on CBS being a notable exception.

Looking  at the way that the American broadcast networks currently schedule Saturday nights, I must say that this seems wrong headed to me. In scheduling reruns on Saturday night, not only do the networks lose any chance of winning the desired 18-49 demographic, but any other television viewers as well. In fact, the last time I remember watching network programming on Saturday night was when NBC aired It's a Wonderful Life last December. And that was probably the first time I'd watched network programming since NBC had aired It's a Wonderful Life the December before that!  On those Saturday nights when I am home I will generally watch something on cable (this is always the case when Doctor Who is on BBC America) or on DVD. Quite simply, then, in airing reruns, the networks are surrendering Saturday night to the various cable channels or to DVD and Blu-Ray players. I rather have to doubt that they are winning the night, and especially not in the 18-49 demographic.

Instead of simply programming reruns on Saturday night, I think the networks would do better if they scheduled something else. In the case of NBC, I think they could schedule a movie anthology series, one with an already established brand name: NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. Of course, given the fact that movies are a dime a dozen on various cable channels (they form a good part of the programming for both USA and TNT), NBC would want to make NBC Saturday Night at the Movies different from earlier movie anthologies. I figure this could be done in two ways. The first is that they could borrow a page from Turner Classic Movies and have a host. The host would introduce the film being aired that night and provide trivia about the film in bumpers right before and after commercial breaks. Ideally, the host should be pleasant, congenial, and preferably a film expert (think Robert Osborne on TCM). Second, I do not think they would want to limit themselves to recent films, but instead to show movies from the Thirties to the Teens. One week one might see The Dark Knight, next week he or she might see Dark Victory. The presence of a host would set the new NBC Saturday Night at the Movies apart from movies shown on cable, while showing older films would give viewers something not usually seen on American television outside of Turner Classic Movies.

Now I realise that NBC attempted to revive NBC Saturday Night at the Movies in 2000. And I realise that particular version of Saturday Night at the Movies had a host. That having been said, I think it failed because it was showing recent films that had already been shown over and over on cable channels and the host was Ryan Seacrest. Now I have nothing in particular against Mr. Seacrest, but he is hardly Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz, and the few times I watched the 2000-2001 Saturday Night at the Movies I don't remember much film trivia. If NBC had aired a variety of films, both old and new, on Saturday Night at the Movies, and had a host who could provide real movie trivia, I think might actually have done better than it did in the 2000-2001 season.

Of course, I also realise that another objection could be that they would not get enough of the 18-49 demographic to make a new NBC Saturday Night at the Movies worth their while. First, as anyone who has read this blog knows, I think the networks and Madison Avenue's obsession with the 18-49 demographic is misguided in the extreme. I won't go into all of the reasons I believe this (I've outline those elsewhere), but I will point out the simple fact that college students and people starting out in life don't have money. If Madison Avenue wants a demographic with some extra spending cash and a willingness to buy things beyond the necessities, it seems to me that they should be looking at the 30-64 demographic!

Even if the networks and Madison Avenue were right about their pursuit of the 18-49 demographic, I rather suspect that a movie anthology series, especially one done differently than others before it, would draw a greater share of that demographic than reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit or Chicago Fire. Indeed, it would probably draw a greater share of other demographics as well. I rather suspect that even Madison Avenue would have to agree that an audience of sixty year olds is better than no audience at all, which I have to wonder isn't where the networks are at right now.

NBC Saturday Night at the Movies revolutionised American television when it debuted in 1961. For over a decade it proved extremely successful. It certainly would not be quite so revolutionary now and I certainly don't think it would receive the ratings that it did in the Sixties. That having been said, NBC Saturday Night at the Movies could draw more viewers to NBC on Saturday nights, certainly more than the reruns they currently air now. At any rate, it seems to me that instead of simply surrendering Saturday night to the cable channels, it is time for the broadcast networks to fight back.

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