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Thursday rules

It's the night when 'everything comes together' for advertisers, networks.

September 14, 2003|Ned Martel | Special to The Times

You can picture yourself in a high-seated SUV, bouncing across a red-rock arroyo, can't you? You want all the high-seas harvest that Red Lobster can offer spread out before you. You want to feel the chill of a stadium-seat movie house while Colin Farrell SWATs away evildoers on screen.

The TV networks deliver such crystalline commercial thoughts into viewers' heads every Thursday night through advertisements that gear the brain for the weekend ahead. You can do it all -- test drive your fantasy vehicle, then drift into feast and film. And the breaks between mega-promoted series instruct as to how and where to fulfill these wishes.

So how did all 103 million of us get there on the same night? The answer is that we were lured through a clever collaboration. Networks, which needed one night of concerted competition to create some magic, joined with advertisers, who wanted the wealthiest, youngest and most discerning consumers served up just as the workweek wound down. If consumption drives our lives, then at no time is the consumable bounty offered up more completely and aggressively than on Thursday-night television. And it is not because more Americans are watching -- Monday night wins, if measured in total faces staring into the TV glow, on average. But on Thursday, "the young audience is watching television," says David Poltrack, a CBS planning executive. "And advertisers will pay what it costs to be there."

This season will be the biggest battle yet for Thursday-night brain space. Ever since NBC first established its comedy-led franchise with "The Cosby Show" in 1984, the Peacock Network has had a near lock on the night. For two decades, the laughs kept coming ("Family Ties," "Cheers," "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Will & Grace") and led into dramatic night-cappers like "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "ER." Then each of the last three seasons, CBS has added a blockbuster to its Thursday-night lineup, and the summer's rerun ratings surge for "Without a Trace" gives the network a three-hit, anti-NBC phalanx, which also includes "Survivor" and "CSI."

But before Thursday could rise, a major night of TV watching had to be dismantled. Saturday night used to be an evening of maximum programming energy, even if the number of people watching was never as high as on Sunday or Monday nights. "Saturday night has always been a relatively lower viewing night, but it could be profitable for networks when they were controlling all the audience," explains Poltrack. His network put some of its crowd pleasers -- "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show" -- right there in a night of stay-at-home, appointment television.

The entertainment consumer back then, in the 1970s, basically had two weekend options: go out to a movie or stay at home to see what the networks had to keep you from doing so. In some cases, a network could let you do both, in a way, by showing a first television run of some major film. "That was a big event," explains Preston Beckman, Fox's chief scheduler. But then HBO started offering the same kind of TV premieres, at a premium but without ads. And then VCRs gave viewers another movie-at-home option. Eventually, advertiser-supported cable and upstart networks all began to steal away their respective parts of the stay-at-homes.

In the '80s, advancements in ratings technology had let the networks know that the only sectors watching in big numbers were youngsters and oldsters -- viewers of "The Facts of Life" and "Golden Girls," respectively. Eventually "The Love Boat" sank as a weekend favorite and networks bailed on Saturday, where the lone remaining franchise was "Saturday Night Live," the late-night hit that still outpaces any network offering in prime time that evening.

If first runs of movies helped undo Saturday night, movie marketing budgets were a boon for Thursday-night tube-watching. "The movie has just two weekends to make it," says CBS' Poltrack. "The young audience is watching television then. This is the time to get them, and it's a must-buy." "On Thursday night, everything comes together," says Mitch Metcalf, NBC's planning executive. At one point, NBC's Thursday-night profits climbed to a level greater than each of the other networks' profits for their entire prime-time lineups. And CBS' reality contest and procedural crime dramas have wowed -- and widened -- the Thursday-night crowd.

To get a sense of the monetary stakes involved, last season's highest-priced ad was sold during CBS' "Survivor" for $456,000 per 30-second spot, according to industry estimates. This is compared to the Saturday-night bargain price of ads sold along with Fox's "Cops," which went for $49,000, according to the experts. On a good Thursday night, NBC rakes in more than $18 million in ad revenue, according to some estimates, compared to roughly $3 million on a Saturday.

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