Thursday, April 27, 2006

Timing is Everything

Last season Alias performed better in the ratings than it ever had. This season, moved to a new time slot, it performed so pathetically that it was both put on a four month hiatus and cancelled. Last Wednesday Alias returned with a two hour episode and peformed better in the ratings than it had all season. Many people might be curious as to why a show which had done so poorly in the ratings as to be cancelled suddenly saw the size of its audience increase. As for me, I am not. It all comes down to the show's time slot.

When it comes to a show's success, its time slot is all important. I think Alias is a perfect example of this. Last season Alias aired on Wednesday nights following Lost. Lost proved to be one of the surprise hits of the season and shares the same production team as Alias. The audience of Lost then, quite naturally, stayed tuned for Alias. This season ABC, for whatever reason, moved Alias to Thursday nights. Moved away from Lost and facing both Survivor on CBS and Will and Grace on NBC, the ratings for Alias plummetted. Quite simply, it was facing more than one highly rated, established show, while at the same time it lost the lead in from a show whose audience it largely shared. The cancellation of Alias could then largely be blamed on ABC, who quite unwisely moved the show from a time slot in which it was doing very well.

Of course, the ratings plunge which Alias experienced was nothing when compared to the drop in the ratings which Mork and Mindy saw in its second season. It was a smash hit in its first season, ranking third in the ratings for the over all season. For its second season ABC made two fatal mistakes with the show. First, they did away with many of the series' supporting characters. Second, they moved the show from its original time slot. The end result was that a show that had previously been a top ten hit started ranking regularly in the bottom of the Nielsens. In the end, Mork and Mindy never quite recovered, even when it was returned to its original time slot.

The importance of a show's time slot can even explain why some shows actually peform better when reran in syndication than they do in their original time slot. There is perhaps no better example of this than Star Trek. During its original network run Star Trek performed abysmally in the ratings, yet it has gone on to become one of the most successful shows in syndication of all time (right up there with I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island). I suspect much of this had to do with when NBC scheduled the show. In its first season, Star Trek faced the still successful My Three Sons on CBS and the hit Bewitched on ABC. It is little wonder it did not do well in its first season. For its second season NBC gave Star Trek a new time slot. Sadly, this one was even worse than its original time slot. It was moved to Friday night, when many of the teenagers and college students who comprised the majority of its audience at the time would be out and about. I mean, just how many young people stay home on Friday night? Worse yet, it was against Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. on CBS, then one of the top ten shows. Again, it is little wonder Star Trek did not perform well in the ratings. For its third and final season, it remained on Friday night, but aired later than it had before--at 10:00 PM EST/9:00 PM CST. As might be expected, its ratings declined even more and it was cancelled. Because of its time slots, Star Trek never really had a chance during its original network run. I have always thought that had it in placed in just the right time slot, it could well have been a hit in its first run.

Of course, the example of Star Trek brings to me something that has always puzzled me about the networks--that is their habit of placing genre shows with an appeal to young people on Friday nights. I realise that in the early Sixties a study was conducted that Friday night was the best time to schedule such programmes, but the history of television has since proven that study to be false. The list of youth oriented, genre shows which have failed on Friday night is a long one: Star Trek, Beauty and the Beast, the prime time revival of Dark Shadows, Millenium... There have only been a few such shows that have actually succeeded on Friday night. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of three: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and The X Files. Here I should point out that the success of these shows can easily be explained. When The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was moved to Friday night, it was alreay a smash hit and had become something of an outright fad. It could have been placed in nearly any time slot and done well. As it is, many of the show's fans protested its move to Friday nights. As to The Wild Wild West, it was a combinatin Western, spy series, and sci-fi show. As a Western and a spy series, it quite naturally had an audience of older males as well as younger people. Being scheduled on Friday night, it might well have lost many teenage and college age viewers, but it retained many male viewers in its thirties and forties. As to The X-Files, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. it emerged as something of a phenomenon. Even then, its ratings were not spectacular when it aired on Friday nights. The X-Files would not become a smash hit until it made the move to Sunday nights. I have to wonder that if it had remained on Friday nights that it would not have gone the way of Beauty and the Beast.

Anyhow, I am still puzzled to this day as to why the networks choose to schedule youth oriented, genre shows on Friday night when so many such series have failed on this night. Most teenagers and college age people choose to go out on Friday nights. At the very least, they have never chosen to stay at home and watch network television! Common sense would then seem to dicate that Friday is then the worst night for youth oriented, genre shows...

Obviously, the time slot of a show is not the only thing which dictates its success or failure. The changes made in Mork and Mindy in its second season may have had caused its drop in the ratings as much as its move to a new time slot. That having been said, a show's time slot can play a large role in whether it is successful or not. A series scheduled against an established hit (these days C.S.I. would be a good example probably will not perform well. By the same token, a show scheduled against weak competition might perform better than expected. Sadly, I don't know that the networks always pay attention to this...

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