Milhouse 19 Oct 2005 Saturday night is dead How do you attract viewers to 'loneliest night of the week'? NEW YORK (AP) -- The state of network television on Saturday nights has become so dire that ABC has essentially put a prime-time slot up for auction to anyone who has a compelling idea -- as long as it's done very cheaply. ABC has put the word out to Hollywood producers that a Saturday night home is available to a program that can be made for no more than $500,000 an episode, which is about a quarter of what the traditional comedy or drama costs. "Because it's Saturday night, they're willing to try things that they wouldn't try at midweek," said Jeff Bader, ABC's head of scheduling. Saturday has become the forgotten night for broadcasters, who aren't entirely sure what to do there anymore. They just know it's not worth spending much to seek an audience that clearly has other plans. "It's the loneliest night of the week for network television and television in general," said Mitch Metcalf, NBC's executive vice president for scheduling. Except for occasional specials, CBS's "48 Hours Mysteries" is the only original Saturday night program on ABC, CBS and NBC this season. Fox has run "COPS" and "America's Most Wanted" on Saturday for years; the WB and UPN don't broadcast. Viewers with long memories know it wasn't always this way. "Gunsmoke," "Perry Mason," "Mission: Impossible," "Love Boat," "Fantasy Island," "Golden Girls" and "Touched By an Angel" are among the classic series shown on Saturdays. You could make a strong argument that during the early 1970s, CBS on Saturday night had the single best night of prime-time TV ever: "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show." Saturday night -- date night -- was never the most popular night for TV. But the decline in Saturday viewership caught momentum with the advent of cable television, particularly when HBO scheduled its showcase movies then. The popularity of home videos and DVDs gave viewers still more options, said David Poltrack, chief researcher at CBS. Since 2000, Saturday night network TV viewership has dropped 39 percent, compared to 16 percent for the seven nights in total, according to Nielsen Media Research. So far this season, the four networks combined average 23.1 million viewers on Saturday, or less than a typical episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" or "Desperate Housewives" get on other nights. Along with viewers, advertisers who are increasingly adept at targeting an audience are shying away from Saturdays, Metcalf said. "They want to get their messages out before the weekend starts, before people make their purchasing decisions for the weekend," he said. "By Saturday, that ship has sailed." Lately, it's a classic chicken-or-egg argument: Are the viewers fleeing because the networks aren't offering much, or are the networks abandoning Saturdays because they sense viewers' lack of interest? Networks began dialing back early this decade. Saturday became "movie night," but even that rarely works because people are impatient watching movies clogged with commercials. With shows like "The District" and "Hack," CBS bragged two years ago that it was the only network still in business on Saturday, but that didn't last. Now it's mostly reruns. "I'd like to think we all tried," said Kelly Kahl, head of CBS's scheduling department. "We held out probably a little longer. But the choices at some point just become overwhelming." CBS wraps its reruns in a nice bow: two hours it calls "Crimetime Saturday." It airs episodes of procedural dramas like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and gets about the same modest ratings as it did with original shows, and even does better among young viewers, Poltrack said. As a result, the network now makes a nice profit on a night where it used to lose money. Besides movies and NASCAR races, NBC has found Saturday to be a comfortable home for its "Law & Order" franchise. This year it has taken a cue from HBO and is using the night to give viewers a second chance to catch on with its new series. A week ago, NBC ran three straight episodes of "My Name is Earl," and has also showcased "Surface." "People's lives are so busy and there are so many new shows to watch," Metcalf said. "They key is to pick shows that are showing signs of growth, or that people are talking about and there are good reviews." For the past few weeks, ABC has given fans of "Lost" a second chance to keep up with that story. It has also aired repeats of "Invasion" and "Commander in Chief." A combination of movies and repeats will fill out the season, Bader said. 'Fresh apple pie' As the force behind Saturday's island of original programming, "48 Hours Mysteries" executive producer Susan Zirinsky said she's happy to be scheduled there. How many times, she said, have you been home on a Saturday night and surfed aimlessly through the channels looking for something new? "We're promising a fresh apple pie at 10 o'clock," she said. She's also experimenting with new storytelling approaches. Often, the first five minutes of her show -- which usually feature true-crime mysteries -- don't feature reporters or any indication that its a news program. The idea is to hook viewers on stories compatible with the dramas they've just been watching. Experimentation, along the lines of what ABC is planning, might be the only other recourse on Saturday nights. Why can't the networks try out pilots of new shows, even ones executives have rejected, to see if something draws some interest? ABC has set no boundaries for the suggestions it seeks: the shows could be reality, scripted, news, sports, whatever, Bader said. "We use the summer to experiment," he said. "Well, Saturday can be our summer every week."