01 June, 2011

Is Sci-Fi TV on Friday Good or Bad?


Geek TV fandom seems to have split opinions when it comes to their shows running on Fridays. On the one hand, the phrase “Friday death slot” gets thrown around. There are not-so-fond memories of shows such as Firefly, Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Dollhouse being put on Friday and not exactly thriving.

On the other hand, there’s the opinion demonstrated by Gateworld.net’s Darren Sumner. Darren wrote a piece in early May called “How wrestling is Killing Science Fiction”.

Original series such as Farscape, the first two Stargates, and Battlestar Galactica once dominated Syfy’s Friday schedule and did pretty well for themselves—by the network’s standards at the time, anyway. Then, Syfy acquired the rights to WWE Smackdown with its own large Friday night fanbase. Putting said wrestling on Friday cut into the network’s use of the night for original scripted shows.

Darren’s argument was that wrestling is so strong that it can survive on other nights, but science fiction shows need Friday. His request was for Syfy to move wrestling to another night and give the night back to science fiction shows.

So, is Friday a “death slot” or a safe haven?

There’s no doubt that one of the reasons that genre shows got put on Fridays over the years is the theory that geeks don’t go out on Friday. I don’t know if that is or isn’t true. I know I go out. Over the years, I’ve relied on my VCR and DVR to allow me to have a social life and see Friday shows later.

For the population at large, Adult 18-49 live TV usage is much lower on Friday. As I was contemplating the ratings impact of Chuck’s move to Friday this Fall, I found that Live TV viewing at 8PM is 17% lower on Friday than Mondays. It’s 15% lower at 9PM and 10% lower at 10PM.

So, right off the bat, you are dealing with fewer available viewers than on other nights. The counter-balancing element is that there is less competition on Friday. Networks do not put their strongest shows on Friday. When they do get a high-rated show on Friday, they move it pretty quickly. Many people don’t remember that juggernaut CSI began on Friday, was a hit, and got moved to Thursday pretty quickly.

My focus is on live viewing because the most important thing people need to know about ratings now is that the only rating that matters is the “C3” rating. “C3” is the rating that the average commercial minute gets in a program within three days of it airing. A few years ago, advertisers got their decades-old wish to pay for the ad time based on an estimate of who watches the commercials rather than who watches the show. They have a point. If you were an advertiser, you wouldn’t want to pay more than you have to either.

While genre fans love the DVR, I think part of the ratings problem genre shows have began when Nielsen started to include it in the ratings. It’s popular for the “commonfolk” to bitch about Nielsen, but it was Nielsen’s development of new technology to measure DVR viewing that added a new challenge for genre shows. Their technological advancement in developing the “C3” rating added more to the problem. When the VCR was the dominant time-shifting tool, the technology only existed to measure what people recorded, but not what they played back. So, the industry did something that was ultimately very good for science fiction shows. They counted anything that was recorded on a VCR as being played back. Science fiction shows and soap operas had what was called a high “VCR contribution” in their rating. So, in essence, they were probably over-counting the genre audience. Surely, not everyone played shows back and-- if they did-- they didn’t play them back in the timeframe advertisers want. They were also skipping commercials like crazy. But, no one was measuring it then.

So, I believe Friday nights were probably better for genre shows with that old Nielsen technology than what it is now that Nielsen is closer to giving advertisers what they want. C3’s aren’t normally published, but they are closest to the Live + Same Day rating these days. So, part of our memories of the “old days” when Scifi shows succeeded on Fridays are tinged by the fact that those rating were “pre-DVR” and “pre-C3”.

The other thing that nags me about Mr. Sumner’s argument is that he is essentially saying that science fiction shows need the cushiest timeslot possible in order to succeed. They can only get decent ratings if they have virtually no competition. I believe the impetus of his POV was how two shows—Stargate: Universe and Sanctuary—got moved from Friday and saw significant drops in their audiences.

Personally, I see that as a sign that people weren’t all that devoted to those shows in the first place. When CSI got moved from Friday, it didn’t lose audience, it gained it.

I think people are making excuses for shows that just aren’t working. Take SGU. It’s first ten episodes ON FRIDAY NIGHT IN THE FALL, averaged 1.5 million PURE LIVE viewers. It added another million time-shifters. The next Spring, in the same timeslot, it was down to 1.1 million Live viewers. But, time-shifters had dropped by about 200,000 too. The subsequent move to Tuesdays didn’t help. 300,000 live viewers dropped the show, but so did another 100,000 time-shifters.

How much does it say about a show when people will drop it so easily?

I don’t mean to pick on this particular show. I actually liked it more than quite a few old-school Stargate fans did. But, one thing lost in the issue of the loss of viewers when it moved was that it really didn’t have a sustainable number of viewers for its cost when it last aired on Friday. The last Friday Adult 18-49 Live + Same Day rating it got was a 0.5. There’s no way that is a profitable rating for a show that looks that expensive.

CW shuttled Smallville to Friday and it did fine and lasted a few more years. Supernatural has survived on Friday as well. We’ll see what happens to Chuck in the Fall. Its fans have been complaining about its heavy Monday competition for years.

Fringe defies the “Friday is great” theory when it moved to Friday and saw a Live + Same Day ratings drop of 24%*. The percentage of 18-49 LIVE viewing declined also. The Friday Fringe had the lowest percentage of live viewing for that demo of all Primetime Broadcast shows for last season.

I don’t think I’ve really answered the question of whether Fridays are good or bad for science fiction TV. If anything, I think the answer is that “it’s complicated.” It may be okay for shows with built-in fanbases to move there and last another season or more. But, Friday’s ability for launching an unproven series may be over. The only new show going into the Friday battle this Fall is Grimm. We’ll see how that does. All the other Friday genre shows are established.

I don’t see Syfy backtracking on its decision about wrestling on Friday. Unless a scripted science fiction show is really cheap, I can’t see one generating a high enough C3 audience on Fridays to be sustainable anymore. And, if it can’t pull an audience on another night, it probably won't work at all.

* Average of all episodes from start of season through week of 5/15.


10 comments:

  1. I guess I don't need to worry about it since Chuck has already been announced as running only one more season of 13 episodes. Though this article is eye opening.

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  2. Im tired from reading that lol. Lots of info that makes no sense to me. I do know that this fall friday will be busy dvr night for me.

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  3. Great read. Very informational.

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  4. I consider myself well informed when it comes to ratings but seeing those percentages makes me feel that sci-fi on network TV is DOOMED.

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  5. I don't think the article said anything that I didn't already suspect. Why is it giving y'all the sads?

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  6. Apparently not everyone is as tapped into the ESP of ratings as some.

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  7. Zaphoid BeetlebroxJuly 4, 2011 at 12:19 AM

    Friday night Sci-fi has always been the BEST. We made different soups, smoked cigars and sipped some good "No. 7" while trying to analyze the various shows. What in the world happened to Friday nights here lately???

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  8. Do these networks account for the viewer ratings online on websites such as Hulu? I've been watching all my shows online because I am a student and sometimes I can't help having a night class (thanks to the CA higher education budget cuts). I know your information was based on Live viewers only but they've got to look at those ratings online too? I mean, those of us who don't own DVR's etc., we tend to wait a couple of days for the latest episodes to appear online for viewing. I believe a lot of of 18-30 year olds spend their time watching shows online after they're done socializing.

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  9. What it comes down to is... if the site or on-demand viewing has the same commercials as the live TV viewing, then it gets counted the same. And, of course, the viewer has to be watching the commercials for it to count. If you somehow skip the commercials, then it won't count at all.

    The networks want to count EVERY SINGLE VIEWER, even the ones who fast forward on their DVR through commercials. The advertisers do not. At the end of the day, it only matters what the advertisers want since they pay the bills.

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  10. How can we fight to keep chuck on air for another season?

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