At the start of the new broadcast season, the once ho-hum Friday night is suddenly a network battleground. "All the networks are going aggressively after Friday night," said ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne, speaking at last week's Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon featuring all six network entertainment presidents. "With 16 ratings points of viewers watching cable on Friday night, there is no reason they can't be watching us."
The night is NBC's to lose, after last year's winning lineup of Providence, Dateline and Law & Order: SVU. NBC canceled Providence last winter because it wasn't repeating well, making it hard to recoup the show's costs even though it still was attractive to NBC's key adult 18-49 demographic. But replacing Providence proved to be harder than NBC expected when Mister Sterling tanked.
This fall, NBC has moved SVU to Tuesdays at 10 p.m., after the network determined such a strong show would be better used on more financially important night, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said last week.
NBC hopes to maintain its winning ways on Fridays by starting the night with Alicia Silverstone-vehicle Miss Match. Several critics have called the show next season's best drama but acclaim has never meant ratings success. Case in point, NBC's critically hailed Boomtown suffered Sundays at 10 p.m. opposite CBS's The Handler, starring Joe Pantoliano. NBC moved the ratings-challenged series to Fridays at 10 p.m. but industry observers don't expect the police drama to fare any better in its new slot.
"It's a dense show and I think dense shows are hard to do on a weekend," says one network executive. "After working hard all week, people just want to be entertained."
Miss Match is expected to face stiff competition in CBS's Joan of Arcadia, another drama focused on a young woman, but different in theme and feel. It also features two older stars, Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen, who are expected to appeal to CBS's older demographic.
Making Friday night tougher is the return of ABC's TGIF comedy block, comprised of George Lopez, Married to the Kellys, Hope & Faith and Life With Bonnie. Those shows also will seek young female viewers, hard to come by because many of them do not watch TV on Friday nights.
"There's definitely a risk to our Friday night schedule, but we feel like the move is strong," said Jeff Bader, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment. "There's a lot of potential upside on Friday night."
Established comedies will begin and end the block, while the network has high hopes for Hope & Faith because of its popular star, Kelly Ripa.
Last year, Fox struggled on Fridays, trying three dramas meant to attract young men. This season, Fox is putting two more established shows on its Friday schedule, Wanda at Large at 8 and Boston Public at 9, hoping they will bring their viewers with them and to new comedy Luis at 8:30.
"We don't expect to do significantly better on Fridays than we did last year," said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning. "If we can hold our own on the night with a different look, that at least that gives us some targets" in terms of future show development.
The WB has had some success rebuilding its Friday night with Reba and now Grounded for Life, acquired from Fox last year. Although with both Fox and ABC bringing comedy to the night, this season might be more difficult for The WB. Meanwhile, UPN has opted to stick with its Friday night movie.