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Networks Are Catching Friday Night Fever

To woo viewers from cable TV, fall lineups are being stacked with returning hits and new programs.

September 22, 2003|Susan King and Meg James | Times Staff Writers

As network executives officially launch their fall schedules today, it looks like they've stumbled onto something:

Friday nights.

Fifteen of the 18 programs on the networks' Friday schedules are new, or shows that have been moved to a Friday evening time slot. The only veterans returning to the same time slot on the same network are ABC's "20/20," NBC's "Dateline" and WB's "Reba."

For years, network executives largely have ignored Friday nights, when fewer viewers were at home, particularly the 18-to-49-year-old crowd that advertisers covet most. ABC executives, for example, abandoned their "TGIF" line-up several years ago.

Instead, networks focused on showcasing their hottest shows on nights when advertisers pay the highest rates: Sundays, which traditionally boasts one of the biggest audiences of the week, and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when retailers and Hollywood studios are showcasing their products and movies in advance of the weekend.

A few series here and there started on Friday nights and built a following, such as NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Providence." And CBS' powerhouse "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" began as a Friday night sleeper -- before executives saw its potential and moved it to Thursday, where it became TV's most-watched show.

The last night of the workweek came close to joining Saturday as TV's equivalent of an untouchable.

This season, however, network executives are ready to throw some elbows to win the suddenly hot night. "It really became a jump ball across the board," CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said.

Like other networks, ABC is motivated to try to grab back some of the audience that has migrated to cable channels on Friday nights. Ratings show that more than 40 million viewers have been tuning in to basic cable channels, many in the key 18-to-49 age group that advertisers want to reach most.

"Every network has gone after Friday night in a very big way," ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said. The Walt Disney Co.-owned network moved "George Lopez" from its popular Wednesday spot to become its Friday anchor.

Kelly Kahl, executive vice president of program planning and scheduling for CBS, said a financial bonanza is behind the competition for viewers.

"We know a lot of people work their butts off all week, get to Friday night and want to put their feet up on the couch and be entertained.... If you have a good Friday night schedule, it has a real positive impact on your overall ratings for the weekend and your bottom line," Kahl said.

The grab for Fridays has put one TV comedy producer, Bruce Helford, in the unenviable position of competing with himself on Fridays, with his Fox comedy "Wanda at Large" airing at 8 p.m. opposite his popular "George Lopez" on ABC.

"All of the networks are making an effort to make it a great night of TV, so the plus side is that the viewers have great stuff to watch," Helford said.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, Fridays were fabulous.

In the 1950s, that night was the domain of shows such as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "Rawhide." Baby boomers remember spending Friday nights in front of the set in the 1960s watching "The Flintstones," "The Wild, Wild West," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "Star Trek."

The 1970s saw shows such as "The Odd Couple," "Sanford and Son" and "The Rockford Files." In the 1980s, Friday nights revolved around "Dallas," "Falcon Crest" and "Miami Vice."

Though overall viewership cooled off in the 1990s, for a good portion of the decade ABC made a profit off family audiences with such "TGIF" comedies as "Step by Step" and "Family Matters." And there were hits such as "Picket Fences," "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Nash Bridges."

In recent years, though, some networks all but gave up on Friday nights and instead tried to chase young urban sophisticates with weeknight programming. Others were content to rely on shows that pulled in modest ratings, but no one dominated the night.

This season, networks are trying to recapture the success of the past.

Viacom Inc.-owned CBS is moving its Tuesday-night anchor series "JAG" to Fridays at 9 p.m. and hopes that it will create a draw for two new shows surrounding it, "Joan of Arcadia" and "The Handler."

General Electric Co.-owned NBC is introducing "Miss Match," its new show from "Sex and the City" creator Darren Star, Fridays at 8 p.m. It's also moving its acclaimed cop drama "Boomtown" from Sundays at 10 p.m., where it struggled during its freshman year, to Fridays at 10 p.m.

At the WB, "Reba" -- the network's most popular comedy -- will be followed by sitcoms "Like Family," "Grounded for Life" and "All About the Andersons"

The News Corp.-owned Fox Broadcasting Co. network opted to go for an older, broader audience on Fridays, instead of programming shows geared to boys and young men.

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