For TV networks, running an original scripted series on Saturday nights is sort of like trying to grow a rose in the desert: There's not a lot of support for the effort. This fall, however, CBS sees the chance for a bloom.
In a move that runs counter to current conventional TV-industry wisdom, the so-called Tiffany Network this fall will air first-run episodes of the venerable sitcom "Rules of Engagement" at 8 p.m. on Saturdays -- the first time it has attempted such a feat since playing a slate of Saturday dramas ("Hack" and "The District") in the 2004-2005 season. CBS held on to the night longer than most; recognizing the evening's dwindling audience, NBC and ABC have run nothing but movies or repeats on Saturdays since, respectively, the fall of 2000 and the fall of 1999.
Ad buyers are expressing mild optimism. After all, aside from Fox's unscripted "Cops," there's little else new against which to place commercials, and it's well known that reruns tend to draw smaller audiences than original broadcasts. Agencies surveyed by Advertising Age as part of an annual effort to project commercial ratings for fall programming anticipate CBS improving in the first two hours of Saturday night -- thanks in part to the addition of "Rules."
"We expect them to do better than a repeat would," said Brian Hughes, VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global. "We don't think it's going to be a game-changer, but it's definitely a worthwhile experiment."
CBS will use the inclusion of "Rules" to boost ad rates for the evening, acknowledged Chris Simon, exec VP-sales at the network. "We view this as an opportunity to get better pricing," he said. "Obviously, we're hoping and anticipating higher ratings ." And, suggested Kelly Kahl, CBS Entertainment's senior exec VP-prime time, if "Rules" performs well, "our hope would be that there are more situations like this where it makes sense."
Once home to such boob-tube mainstays as "The Love Boat," "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "Mannix," Saturdays have now been reduced to a place for re-runs and lower-cost fare like Fox's "Cops" (CBS has continued to run "48 Hours Mystery" on this night). The trouble? Consumers tend to pry themselves away from TV on Saturday night; those that do stay home have an infinitely more diverse array of choices than they did when Captain Stubing set sail at 9 p.m. on ABC. Indeed, overall TV usage declines 12% to 15% across Friday and Saturday , estimated Magna's Mr. Hughes.
Technology and the economy could be reversing some of that trend.
With digital video recorders in more than a third of U.S. TV homes in the first quarter of 2011, according to Magna Global, the consumers advertisers desire most -- people between the ages of 18 and 49 -- can go out on Saturday and still watch programs they record that night.
And the sluggish economy may be giving many people a reason to stay home on Saturday nights and watch TV in more traditional fashion. "As consumers have displayed a tendency to tighten their budget -- especially when it comes to non-essential expenses like weekend social events -- people are quite possibly more available than ever on Saturday night to watch TV," suggested Thomas Ksiazek, an assistant professor of communication at Villanova University who studies consumer behavior across media venues. "This suggests that viewers may want high-quality weekend prime-time TV and indeed may turn out in larger numbers to watch it -- at least it seems that 's what CBS is banking on."
"Rules" opened a quandary for CBS executives earlier this year as they were devising the network's fall schedule. The sitcom, which stars Patrick Warburton, Megyn Price, David Spade and others, has proven a durable performer on several different nights, and has often been used as a mid-season replacement for other, less reliable shows. Keeping it on the air would help draw revenue for the syndicated run. Yet CBS had already filled its weeknight schedule with up-and-comers and returning programs, said Mr. Kahl. "It kind of didn't sit right with us," he recalled, adding that "there are some new economics in terms of TV now which go beyond just putting the show on the air and selling units, and some of that has to do with the aftermarket, international and foreign distribution of these shows."
Finding the sixth season of "Rules" a roost on Saturdays both produces fresh episodes and draws attention to the series even as reruns air on local stations and elsewhere -- a move that could benefit CBS and its production partner on the show, Sony.
The show "is "80% sold in the country," said John Weiser, president-U.S. distribution, for Sony Pictures Television. "Rules" went up for syndication sales just as CBS announced its fall schedule in this year's upfront market, he said, and having the show ready to run anew in the autumn "really created a groundswell of appetite," he noted.
CBS could be open to doing more on what has turned out to be broadcast TV's quietest evening. Having originals on more nights of the week offers CBS the opportunity to try to sell more shows into syndication and overseas. "Saturday may have fewer viewers than other nights of the week, but if we don't put something on there, it's going to be this self-fulfilling prophesy," said Mr. Kahl.