Once upon a time, the TV networks gave a rats ass about Saturday nights. It almost seems apocryphal, but there was a fabled season long ago that had this Saturday night lineup: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Three solid hours of comedy all-timers.
Slow-forward about 35 years, and what do we have on Saturday nights? As Al Swearengen might say, a huge bag of shit. Sports. Reality. Magazines. Not a single scripted comedy or drama. Saturday night has become a major TV casualty of the overabundance of entertainment choices, and the networks aren’t even bothering to address it.
But isn’t there *anything* they could do? Maybe. But it would involve taking a gamble on some programming concepts that they’ve been slow to embrace, and actually taking advantage of what I will dub “The Spinal Tap Paradox.”
The Spinal Tap Paradox is derived from this classic exchange between Marti DiBergi, the filmmaker, and Ian Faith, their manager:
Marty: The last time Tap toured America, they where, uh, booked into 10,000 seat arenas, and 15,000 seat venues, and it seems that now, on their current tour they’re being booked into 1,200 seat arenas, 1,500 seat arenas, and uh I was just wondering, does this mean uh…the popularity of the group is waning?
Ian: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no…no, no, not at all. I, I, I just think that the.. uh.. their appeal is becoming more selective.
And I would argue this: smaller audiences are smarter, and more dedicated to the thing that they like. No doubt that Tap’s smaller audience knew everything there was to know about Spinal Tap. Probably more than the band knew about themselves.
Television’s appeal has become more selective. So the paradox is this: Television’s audience has become smarter. Shows like Lost, Veronica Mars and even a crazy killfest like 24 demand way more from audiences than even a decade ago. Is there mindless stuff out there? Of course. Same as it ever was, American Idol, same as it ever was. Though one could argue that the interactivity fostered by even that show makes it smarter than megahits of years past.
Anyways, my theory is that the smarter smaller audience responds to the higher quality programming, and because the recording technology has advanced so significantly in the past five year, we are more willing to work to find shows that we like. More willing to take chances.
But that means that the networks have to give us those chances. So why not Saturday night?
First off, perhaps they could repeat shows they want to push. Especially the story-arcy shows. I have noticed that ABC has occasionally done this on Saturday nights with Lost and Desperate Housewives, and the WB did it for years with their Sunday “Easy Views.” I think that those Easy Views — a chance for somebody to record a show that otherwise would have been lost to conflict were instrumental in building up their audiences for shows like Smallville and Everwood.
So instead of rearranging their entire schedule every other week, perhaps NBC could aim directly at the DVR audience with an evening of regular repeats of shows that they really like. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock would be absolute naturals for what they could call “NBC’s Saturday Night Re-views Before Saturday Night Live.” Or not.
The other suggestion is this: take a chance with a culty show. If no one else is doing it, doesn’t that open up a window? Speaking of Everwood, there is a show with a small, ready-made audience that would probably follow it anywhere. While The CW isn’t going after Saturday nights, I can’t believe that there weren’t any pilots that didn’t make it because they were just too weird for the mass audience, but might end up making their money back from DVD sales in the long run. Put one of those on a Saturday night. See what happens.
You won’t have a huge live audience, but if it gets any critical/blogosphere buzz, people will start tivoing it, and then who knows? Eventually it could graduate to a real night.