Television’s worst night is getting a second life

Is Friday night’s reign as the TV “death slot” coming to an end?

After Thursday, there’s finally something on TV

Bob D’Amico/ABC/Everett Collection

When ABC announced that the comedy Happy Endings was being moved to Friday nights, most observers assumed that was the end for the critically acclaimed show; Friday night in television is known as the “death slot.” Happy Endings, which begins its Friday run on March 29, is the latest in a long line of shows that have been banished to Friday night, and fans have learned to dread it: when the sci-fi show Fringe was moved to the slot a few years ago, the network made a joke of it with the advertising tag line: “You may think Friday night is dead, but we’re going to re-animate it.” Today, that scenario might be coming true; in an era when most nights of TV are in trouble, the worst night of the week may not be quite so bad.

Because Friday is a night when few people stay home to watch TV, networks rarely program their most promising shows there: when CSI became an unexpected hit on Fridays, the network moved it to another day. Otherwise, Friday night, which formerly played host to megahits like Dallas and The Dukes of Hazzard, is now a place for shows that aren’t doing well, or don’t require much promotion; Stephen Bowie, a TV historian who runs the Classic TV History blog, says networks may have decided this was a night when “the most desirable audience was out partying.” But recently, some success stories have emerged. Grimm, a supernatural mystery on NBC, is one of the network’s few popular scripted shows, and Shark Tank, ABC’s remake of a reality franchise that has already appeared in Canada as Dragons’ Den, has seen its Friday ratings go up every season.

What does it take to succeed on Fridays? It may help to appeal to people who are most likely to be home: children. One of the last successful and profitable Friday lineups was ABC’s “TGIF” in the 1990s, where writers were asked to make shows for kids and their parents. Michael Price, a writer and producer for The Simpsons who wrote for the ABC comedy Teen Angel, recalls, “We all knew going in that it was specifically a TGIF show, meant to complement the established TGIF shows,” such as Boy Meets World. And the writers tried to please themselves while “always keeping in mind that we were a show aimed at the whole family.”

Today, cable networks already program shows like Degrassi on Friday, and broadcast networks may be rediscovering the idea that it can be a night for young people. While Grimm is violent, its fairy-tale setting has family appeal, and so does Shark Tank, where two recent contestants were people who wanted to throw disco dance parties for kids. Meanwhile, ABC this season launched a Friday block with family-friendly comedies starring middle-aged sitcom stars Tim Allen and Reba McEntire, in a deliberate throwback to the TGIF days.

The ability of Fridays to attract family audiences won’t help an adult comedy like Happy Endings. But because Friday ratings are so low, a network can use the lowered expectations to keep its favourite shows alive. When Fringe was moved to Fridays, it was already in danger of cancellation. On Friday, its ratings continued to be poor, but it managed to get to 100 episodes and end its run this year with a preplanned series finale. If Happy Endings can get the same ratings it usually does, it might not look as bad on Friday as it does elsewhere.

But Friday remains in business as a dumping ground for shows that, as Bowie puts it, are parked there “because it seems like the networks didn’t know where else to dump them.” Fox bought the Kiefer Sutherland drama Touch to great fanfare last year; the same network moved it to Friday this year to burn off a disappointing second season. Still, even if Fridays haven’t gotten back to the glory days of TGIF shows, today’s lineups may be reviving the idea that there is something worth watching on the night—as long as the network doesn’t try to have a hit with its most challenging or intellectual programming. “It seemed like the dumbest and trashiest shows landed on Friday,” Bowie explains. The Incredible Hulk, Manimal and Knight Rider all aired on Fridays. “Which makes sense: the end of the work week is when you’d most crave escapism, right?”

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