Originally created 11/04/02

TV network chiefs insist they're not abandoning Saturday night



NEW YORK -- Broadcast television networks aren't abandoning Saturday night - and their chiefs may be plotting a revival.

Saturday is the least-watched night on TV. With NBC and ABC both scheduling reruns of theatrical movies instead of original shows, some industry experts have suggested that there may be a day the networks stop programming that night altogether.

But the entertainment presidents of both networks, speaking at a panel here Tuesday, shot down that idea.

"We made a mistake in not more aggressively going after Saturday night and I regret that," said Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president.

It was done partly because NBC concentrated its resources this fall on trying to rebuild its Sunday prime-time schedule with the new dramas "American Dreams" and "Boomtown." Sunday is generally the most-watched television night of the week.

"It's our goal in the coming 18 months to go after Saturday nights in the same way we went after Sundays," Zucker said.

Both NBC and ABC also need to air movies that they bought at great expense a few years ago - back when movies on network TV used to draw more viewers, executives said.

"Saturday night is a profitable night for people," said Susan Lyne, ABC entertainment president. "There is no reason for the networks to give up on Saturday nights."

Back in the 1970s, when CBS aired "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" on Saturdays, it was a popular night. But viewers melted away, in part because the arrival of VCRs and DVD players made renting movies a favorite activity.

There have also been some high-profile failures to reach an audience on Saturday night, particularly NBC's investment in XFL football.

So far this season, viewership is 14 percent lower on Saturday than it is on Sunday, according to Nielsen Media Research.

CBS generally wins Saturdays, with dramas "The District" and "Touched By an Angel."

"CBS has consistently believed in that night," said Nancy Tellem, CBS entertainment president, glancing at her rival executives. "We've always had original programming. I'm thrilled that they don't, because we do quite well."

For several years, Fox has profitably aired "COPS" and "America's Most Wanted" on Saturdays. The younger WB and UPN networks do not schedule programs that night.

Saturday has proven its ability to generate hits on a smaller scale. The TLC cable network's home makeover show, "Trading Spaces," is drawing a solid audience.

Also on Tuesday, the network executives conceded that their shows are coarser than in the past. They said they are trying to balance taste with a desire to present realistic situations to people who see stronger language and violence on cable television.

Interestingly, the executives said viewers are more willing to accept such language from long-time characters instead of new ones.

On "NYPD Blue" recently, Dennis Franz's character, Andy Sipowicz, uttered a common barnyard epithet. Similarly, the dying doctor played by Anthony Edwards in "ER" used strong language to express his frustration at the end of last season.

"I would think that on 'NYPD Blue,' these characters have earned the right to speak more honestly than new characters that we are introducing," Lyne said.