Monday, September 17, 2012

Friday Night Death Slots

While it doesn't happen every American television season, it happens often enough to be notable. One of the broadcast networks  will schedule a programme meant to appeal to the coveted 18 to 34 year old demographic on a Friday night. Given that many people from 18 to 34 years of age go out on Friday night or engage in other activities that do not involve watching broadcast network television, it should be no surprise that the programme usually suffers a swift death. Fox, in particular, has become famous for scheduling youth oriented shows on Friday night, to the point that it has become something of a joke. Regardless, the other networks were scheduling youth oriented programmes, which were generally cancelled in less than a season, long before Fox was ever founded. Indeed, Friday night would become so notorious as a bad time for scheduling television shows that the phrase "Friday night death slot" would come about.

It is difficult to say when the phrase "Friday night death slot" came into common usage. The phrase "death slot," used of any time slot that guaranteed certain cancellation for a television show, was in use at least as early as the Sixties. A 17 July 1966 Hartford Courant article dealing with The Andy Williams Show moving to Sunday night at 10:00 EST (opposite the high rated ABC Sunday Night Movie) bore the headline, "Williams' Show Going To 'Sudden Death' Slot." The phrase "death slot" would appear infrequently in the Seventies, but became increasingly common as the Eighties progressed. It was most often used of a time slot where a show would be  placed opposite a high rated programme, guaranteeing its swift cancellation, although it was also used of time slots that were generally considered a poor fit for a show. It should be no surprise then that the phrase "Friday night death slot" was used at least as early as the mid-Eighties. The earliest article I found that used the complete phrase was from a 19 October 1985 Lexington Herald-Leader article about Spenser: For Hire being moved to a new time slot. The article read, "Spenser: For Hire, the above-par detective series starring Robert Urich, is being moved out of the Friday-night death slot opposite Miami Vice and Falcon Crest." It is unclear whether the writer meant that Spenser: For Hire was in a death slot because it was opposite two high rated shows or because it was on Friday or, perhaps, a little bit of both. Regardless, the phrase "Friday night death slot" would start appearing frequently in print by the early Naughts. Given that I seem to recall using the phrase "Friday night death slot" as early as the late Eighties and early Nineties, I am inclined to think it was in common use in conversation by the Eighties and simply did not become common in print until the Naughts.

Of course, while the phrase "Friday night death slot" might not have been coined until the Eighties, the idea that Friday night was a bad time for any sort of television programming that might appeal to younger people had been around for decades. For the 1965-1966 season NBC decided to move The Man From U.N.C.L.E., at that point a veritable phenomenon, from 8 PM EST Monday to 10 PM EST Friday. The move proved to be an unpopular one with viewers, who wrote NBC to complain about the show's new time slot. Many viewers complained that the show was on too late in the evening. Teenagers, college students, and housewives all complained that Friday night was when they generally went out.  At the State University of New York 138 students even signed a petition to get NBC to move The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to a Monday night time slot. Despite protests from viewers, NBC kept The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the time slot, where the show did indeed perform well. That having been said, by that point The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was an outright fad and probably would have done well in any time slot. One has to wonder how well it would have done in the Nielsen ratings had NBC scheduled it at a better time.

NBC would also play a role in another early example of the idea that any time on Friday night was a "death slot" for television shows that appealed to young people. Initially for the 1968-1969 season NBC had planned to move Star Trek to Monday night at 8:30 EST.  In March 1968, however, NBC changed its mind, deciding to give the time slot to the hit series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Instead Star Trek would be scheduled at 10:00 PM EST Friday.  In a Toledo Blade article, "Star Trek Lives Despite Taboos," from 15 August 1968, the show's creator Gene Roddenberry complained of the new time slot, "If the network wants to kill us, it couldn't have made a better move." Gene Roddenberry had tried persuading NBC to move Star Trek to a better time to no avail. Unhappy with the show's new time slot, Mr. Roddenberry resigned as the show's producer, although he remained as its executive producer.

Gene Roddenberry was hardly alone in his thought that 10 PM Friday was a death slot for Star Trek, a show that appealed primarily to young people. Like Man From U.N.C.L.E. fans before them, Star Trek fans appear to have been unhappy that their favourite show was being scheduled at 10:00 EST Friday night. In the June 1968 issue of the Star Trek fanzine The Hailing Signal, the following complaint was made: "Now, not only does it have to compete with traditional Friday night social functions, but also a network movie. No show can survive the divided audience which will result." What was obvious to Star Trek fans at the time, that Star Trek could not possibly survive in a late, Friday night time slot, was also obvious to some in the mainstream media. In an Associated Press article from 25 August 1968, television-radio writer Cynthia Lowry described the show's new Friday night time slot as, "...hardly an ideal position for good ratings." She went on to say, "Friday and Saturday nights are not considered the best viewing evenings--the younger crowd is out on dates and the young to middle aged couples are bowling, playing bridge, or having an evening out. Star Trek, like ABC's Judd for the Defence and CBS' Mannix, may therefore suffer from undeserved inattention." Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek fans, and Cynthia Lowry all proved to be right. Never a particularly high rated series, Star Trek suffered the worst ratings of its entire run in the 10:00 EST Friday night time slot. NBC cancelled the show in February 1969.

Given the reaction both Man From U.N.C.L.E. fans and Star Trek fans had to their respective shows being moved to a late Friday night time slot, not to mention the reaction of Gene Roddenberry and others to Star Trek being moved to that time slot, it is quite apparent that by the Sixties Friday night was regarded as a very poor time to schedule any show that appealed to young people.That Friday night was a bad night for any sort of youth oriented programming was not only borne out by the final season of Star Trek, but by the sheer number of other youth oriented shows that, having debuted on Friday night, lasted only one or two seasons at best, often much less. In the Sixties Jonny Quest, The Addams Family, Honey West, Camp Runamuck, The Green Hornet, and The Guns of Will Sonnett were pretty much doomed by being scheduled on Friday night. In the Seventies Ghost Story, The Girl with Something Extra, Planet of the Apes, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and Logan's Run all met an early demise on Friday nights. The Eighties would see such shows as Darkroom, Jennifer Slept Here, Manimal, V, The Twilight Zone, Misfits of Science, Max Headroom, and Beauty and the Beast all suffer for being scheduled on Friday night.

ABC, CBS, and NBC would occasionally schedule youth oriented programming on Friday nights in the Nineties, but for the most part they appear to have been happy to schedule shows that would appeal to older people (Brooklyn Bridge, Diagnosis: Murder, Burke's Law) or children (Boy Meets World, Sabrina the Teenage Witch). Fox proved to be the exception among the networks, continuing to schedule shows that appealed to young people on Friday nights to the point that the network became famous for its "Friday night death slots." Only a few of the youth oriented shows Fox scheduled on Friday nights in the Nineties would last much beyond one season. Those that did not included The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., M.A.N.T.I.S., Strange Luck, The Visitor, and Harsh Realm. The X-Files would manage to survive its first three seasons on Friday night, clinging to life until it was moved to Sunday where it finally became a hit. Despite the fact that the other networks had given up on the practice for the most part and the fact that so many of its shows have failed on that night, Fox has continued to schedule youth oriented programming on Friday nights to this day. Dark Angel, Firefly, John Doe, Wonderfalls, Dollhouse, and The Good Guys all suffered for Fox's practice of scheduling youth oriented programming on Friday nights. What is more Fox apparently hasn't changed this practice this season--Fringe is once more on Friday night. While the term "Friday night death slot" appears to pre-date the founding of Fox, it seems likely that the network's scheduling practices may have hastened the term growing in use in the Naughts.

Never mind that over the decades the youth oriented shows the networks scheduled on Friday night generally died swift deaths, one would think that common sense would have dictated that the networks would schedule no shows that appealed to the 18-34 year old demographic on that evening. As everyone from Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek fans to Associated Press writer Cynthia Lowry pointed out as early as the Sixties, Friday night is when many young people go out. It the night when teenagers and college students go out on dates or to parties, when young couples go to dinner or the movies, and so on. Given this fact, then, one does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that not a terribly large amount of people between the ages of 18 to 34 will be home on a Friday night to watch any television shows with them in mind.

The question, then, is why did the networks persist in scheduling youth oriented shows on Friday night for literally decades? According to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book by Jon Heitland, NBC chose to move The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to 10:00 EST Friday night because studies had demonstrated that more of the 18 to 34 year old audience were available at that time than any other week night. It would seem quite possible, then, that the studies that influenced NBC's decision to move The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to Friday night may have influenced NBC and the other networks over the years in their choices to programme youth oriented shows on Friday night. Of course, while the studies may have been correct in that more people aged 18 to 34 may be free on Friday nights (that is, they do not have to go to school, college, or work) than any other night of the week, this does not mean that they are necessarily going to stay home and watch television. It would then appear that the networks apparently suffered from a bit of hubris in assuming that the average teenager or twentysomething would forgo going out on Friday night to stay home and watch some television show! Indeed, in the book Television Criticism, while discussing the cancellation of youth oriented show Joan of Arcadia (which had been in a Friday night death slot on CBS), author Victoria O'Donnell notes that the median age of the Friday night television audience is 53.9 years old, hardly the 18 to 34 year old demographic NBC apparently thought was home in 1965!

Of course, while the casualty rate of television shows on Friday night would be so high that the phrase "Friday night death slot" would come into existence, that does not mean that there have not been hit shows on that particular night. The Flintstones, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., The Wild Wild West, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, The Rockford Files,The Dukes of Hazzard, and Dallas all aired on Friday night. Here it must be pointed that only a few of these shows appealed primarily to young people and those that did must be considered special cases. As an animated cartoon The Flintstones and, as what was essentially the live action equivalent of a cartoon, The Dukes of Hazzard both had large audiences of children in addition to any adults who might have been watching. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had gone from the sleeper hit of the 1964-1965 season to an outright fad, so that it would have probably pulled in huge ratings on any night of the week. The Wild Wild West was not only a spy show and a sci-fi show (both genres that traditionally appeal to young people), but a Western as well, a genre that has traditionally appealed to an older crowed. Both Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man were sitcoms that had appeal that cut across several age ranges, while The Rockford Files and  Dallas appealed primarily to a slightly older crowd.

Programmes that appealed to the 18 to 34 audience that actually survived on Friday night, let alone became hits, have historically been rather rare on American television. 77 Sunset Strip debuted on Friday and proved to be a hit there, but given it was a detective show it might have appealed to older people as well as the younger crowd.  Room 222 spent much of its run on Friday night, but it had spent its first two years on Wednesday night where it developed a loyal audience. And while it appealed to young people, as a comedy drama set in a school it may have appealed to older people as well. Miami Vice was also another exception to the rule. With its MTV style editing and use of popular music, Miami Vice was obviously meant to appeal to young people. That having been said, Miami Vice was also a police drama, so that it might well have appealed to older people as well. While Friday night would produce hit shows over the years, then, it would appear that most of them were not of the sort that would appeal primarily to the 18 to 34  year old demographic or at least not only to that demographic. 

While the networks would persist in scheduling youth oriented television shows on Friday nights for decades and while the phrase "Friday night death slot" would increasingly gain currency in the Naughts, with the exception of Fox it appears that the networks had given up on scheduling shows that appeal to the 18 to 34 year old demographic on Friday nights starting in the Naughts. From the Naughts into the Teens NBC has scheduled a mixture of a Friday night edition of Dateline: NBC, game shows (1 Vs. 100, Minute to Win It), reality shows (Who Do You Think You Are), and dramas (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Third Watch, Las Vegas). Crusoe and Grimm would appear to be the exceptions in the past many years with regards to NBC's Friday night programming. Both were youth oriented programmes. Of course, Crusoe died a quick death, while Grimm actually became successful on Friday night.  ABC has made due on Friday nights with reality shows (The Mole, Wife Swap), the news magazines Primetime and 20/20, and sitcoms (The George Lopez Show, Life with Bonnie). Since 2003 only CBS has continued with a full schedule of scripted television programmes on Friday nights, and even then it would be shows that would appeal to a decidedly older crowd for the most part. JAG, NUMB3RS, Close to Home, Ghost Whisperer, and Blue Bloods do not appear to have been made with the 18 to 34 crowd in mind. Only Moonlight, a drama about a vampire detective that debuted in the 2007-2008 season on CBS, would appear to have been meant to appeal to youth, and it lasted all of one season.

Of course, while the major networks except for Fox have largely given up scheduling youth oriented programming on Friday nights, the fact is that the night may not be as deadly to youth oriented shows as it was in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. In the Seventies the VCR would make it possible for individuals to record shows and watch them later. The late Nineties would see the arrival of both the DVD recorder and the digital video recorder (the DVR), both of which would make the time shifting of programmes more common than it ever had been before. Quite simply, in the Naughts and the Teens there are probably very few people without some device that will allow them to record their favourite programmes. It then does not matter if a  programme is on a Friday night; its loyal viewers can simply record it. What is more, recording a programme on a DVR will not have a negative impact on a show's ratings--the Nielsens count watching a show at a later time on a DVR the same as if it was viewed when it was initially aired. The fact that many of its viewers time shifted Fringe is much of the reason Fox moved that show to Friday night. In 2010 The CW moved Supernatural to Friday nights where it would survive for two seasons, perhaps because many of its viewers simply recorded the programme. On NBC Grimm became one of its most successful shows despite airing on Friday nights, perhaps because of the phenomenon of time shifting. While most of the networks have abandoned youth programming on Friday nights, then, with the existence of DVRs and DVD recorders, there really was not nearly as much reason for them to do so as there once was.

Strangely enough, then, the phrase "Friday night death slot" would come into common usage in print at the very time that most of the networks were abandoning the practice of scheduling youth oriented programming on Friday nights, the very practice that had given rise to the phrase to begin with, and at a time when DVRs and DVD recorders would make the Friday night death slot redundant to some degree.  While today apparently only Fox seems insistent on scheduling shows that appeal to young people on Friday nights, the idea of the Friday night death slot is one that has dominated television history for decades. In 1965 fans of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. complained because their favourite show was scheduled on a Friday. Star Trek fans would do the same. And while the low rated  Star Trek might not have lasted any longer than one more season regardless, it seems that in scheduling it at 10:00 PM on Friday NBC insured its cancellation in its third season beyond a shadow of a doubt. Star Trek would not be the only show with a cult following that would meet its end on Friday night. Max Headroom, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Firefly, and  The Good Guys all died on Friday night, but maintain followings to this day (particularly Firefly). Given the number of shows that have died on Friday night, over the decades many viewers have shared the reaction of Star Trek fans in the Sixties to their favourite show being moved to that particular night--they have assumed it was an automatic death sentence. Even today in the age of DVRs, many fans of Community regard NBC's moving the show to Friday nights this season as a sure sign that this will be its final season.

While the phrase "Friday night death slot" is still quite common when discussing television scheduling, it remains to be seen in this age of DVRs and time shifting whether Friday nights will remain an automatic death sentence for shows scheduled then. Supernatural and Fringe have both survived on Friday nights, while Grimm actually proved to be a success there. Given the fact that most people can now record shows and watch them later and that this does not affect those shows' ratings, there is little reason that a youth oriented show cannot survive and even thrive on Friday night given enough people record it on their DVRs. The phrase "Friday night death slot" could then eventually become a thing of the past.

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