Call it the resurrection of the time slot of death.
For years, Friday nights have carried a grisly reputation — where shows on broadcast networks are sent to die. But a certain kind of cable show has recently performed well — even really well — on Friday nights.
Gold Rush, on the Discovery Channel, has been the No. 1 show across all channels on Friday nights. It draws almost 5 million viewers — not amazing numbers by American Idol standards, but considerably better than such weeknight cable hits as Mad Men or American Horror Story. Savvy cable programmers can work Friday night's weakness to their own advantage.
"Cable networks, in many cases they're looking for the soft underbelly of the broadcast schedule," says Bob Gorman, who co-runs the website TV By the Numbers. "The Bering Sea Gold premiere was the highest-rated series launch in the Discovery Channel history," he adds.
One of Bering Sea Gold's executive producers speculated at a recent reality show convention that sizable Friday night audiences might have something to do with the economy. People may be staying home, instead of spending Friday night out on the town. And according to Gorman, the percentage of audiences between the ages of 18 and 49 have risen 5 percent over the past year. But truTV cable executive Marc Juris doesn't buy this explanation.
"Forget the economy. You're tired," Juris says. "Unless you're twenty, you come home and you're pretty beat up."
Apparently, Friday fatigue translates to watching other people run through excessively whimsical obstacle courses on the TV show Wipeout. Airing a Friday night block of reruns has earned truTV completely respectable Friday night ratings.
"For us, Friday nights, we had nothing to lose," Juris says, observing that in the days of just four networks, the bottom one would sometimes take risks and end up on top. It turns out Univision is also doing well on Fridays, beating the English-language broadcast networks regularly at the end of every week.
And even the broadcast networks manage to find flickers of life in the time slot of death, with cult-y science-fiction or fantasy shows such as NBC's Grimm, or Fringe on Fox. That one's an X Files-like mystery — a show that was itself a Friday night hit in years past.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Television programmers at the big broadcast networks call Friday night the time slot of death. So they fill it with news magazines that are cheap to produce, or spinoffs of spinoffs.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "CSI: NEW YORK")
GARY SINISE: (As Detective Mac Taylor) Fake ID, fake gun, real murder.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A GIFTED MAN")
PATRICK WILSON: (As Dr. Michael Holt) If you thought you may have Huntington's disease and there's not a damn thing you could do except suffer miserably, lose all your faculties and die, would you get tested?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tonight on "20/20."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is an emergency. You need to get here as soon as possible.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ma'am, ma'am, ma'am, ma'am.
MONTAGNE: Friday night may have flat-lined for the broadcast networks, but NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that cable is giving it a lease on life.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Here's the conventional wisdom from Bill Gorman of the website TV By the Numbers.
BILL GORMAN: You have no chance for success on Friday.
ULABY: And it's true that about 15 percent fewer people watch TV on Friday than during the week. But it appears you can have a hit if you air a cable reality show about looking for gold.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOLD RUSH")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Holy smokes, look at that thing.
ULABY: "Gold Rush" on Discovery has been the number-one show across all channels on Friday nights. It's got almost five million viewers - not amazing numbers but better than weekday cable hits like "Mad Men" or "American Horror Story." Friday's a chance for cable to show up broadcast television.
GORMAN: Cable networks, in many cases, they're looking for the soft underbelly of the broadcast schedule.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOLD RUSH")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We're here to get gold. That's the base reason as to why we're here.
ULABY: Friday nights, like the state of Alaska, contains hidden riches in ratings. Take another Discovery reality show, "Bering Sea Gold."
GORMAN: The "Bering Sea Gold" premiere on a Friday night was the highest-rated series launch in the Discovery Channel history.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BERING SEA GOLD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Wow, is that a piece of gold?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yeah, that's a damn nice piece of gold.
ULABY: One of "Bering Sea Gold's" executive producers is Phil Segal. I met him at a conference for reality TV producers, and we discussed the fact that audiences aged 18-49 have risen 5 percent on Friday nights over the past year. He said it's the economy.
PHIL SEGAL: I think there's a correlation there between people staying home or having additional funds to find other sources of entertainment. I think that's good news for people who produce television.
ULABY: Ouch. But cable executive Marc Juris disagrees with this analysis of why Friday night can work really well for the right kind of show.
MARK JURIS: Forget the economy. You're tired. You had the whole week. Unless you're 20, you come home and you're pretty much beat up.
ULABY: Juris is in charge of truTV. It's a cable channel that only airs reality shows. And on Friday nights, it's doing great with re-runs of "Wipeout," the show where people dodge a wall of red punching gloves and run through giant windmills in a wacky obstacle course.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WIPEOUT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Man knows how to dress and he knows how to run, speeding toward the buzz saw. Don't worry, Brad...
ULABY: Back in the days of just four networks, Juris says the one on the bottom would sometimes end up on top by trying new things, taking risks.
JURIS: For us, Friday nights, we had nothing to lose. We had an opportunity. And you know what? This is a sticky show, and it was just great in terms of bringing new viewers.
ULABY: Friday is a great night, too, for Univision. It beats the English-language networks regularly at the end of every week. But even those big networks can sometimes find a sliver of success in the timeslot of death.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ULABY: Shows with a cult following whose fans are willing to DVR or spend Friday nights at home. Like "Grimm" on NBC and "Fringe" on Fox. That one's an "X-Files"-like mystery. And the "X-Files" was itself a Friday night hit in years past.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ULABY: Happy Friday. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF "X-FILES" THEME)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.