Thursdays will look a little different this fall. That is, if U.S. network TV fare is your bag.
CBS is moving Two and a Half Men to 8:30 p.m., following The Big Bang Theory, and Person of Interest to 9 p.m., with the new series Elementary, the Sherlock Holmes reboot, at 10. Fox is moving Glee to Thursday at 9 p.m. NBC's Thursday lineup is 30 Rock at 8 p.m., Up All Night at 8:30, The Office at 9, Parks and Recreation at 9:30 and the newsmagazine show Rock Center at 10.
For Canadian broadcasters, these changes mean some scrambling. CTV has The Big Bang Theory but also American Idol and The X-Factor, which, on Fox, clash with the CBS schedule. It's a good thing CTV owner Bell Media has multiple channels on which to park shows. It helps if you own almost everything. Meanwhile, CBC will continue to air The Nature of Things on Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Doc Zone at 9 – a wise move, in the constant flurry of shifts and changes to competing sitcoms and dramas on Thursdays.
But here's the thing: Thursday used to matter, big-time. Now, not so much. On TV, Thursdays ain't what Thursdays used to be.
Once upon a time, NBC owned Thursday nights. Year after year, it was Thursday series that were hot, hot, hot – The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, L.A. Law and ER. Other broadcasters gave up on Thursdays, knowing that NBC would scoop up the vast majority of viewers. That is, until CBS put Survivor on Thursdays and, in its heyday, it walloped the competing sitcoms and dramas.
In his book Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, former NBC exec Warren Littlefield estimates that the Thursday schedule made a billion dollars in revenue for NBC. No wonder the stars of Friends were earning $1-million per episode.
The key was ad revenue. Thursday was the top night for movie advertising, and movie companies were willing to pay top dollar to reach the eyeballs of younger viewers who would go to a new movie on Friday or Saturday night. And it was all about retail products too. People go shopping on the weekend, and Thursday night – 8 to 11 – was the perfect time to pitch a new product.
Not much has changed in that configuration. Movies still open and need to be sold to an audience. Stores still have specials for weekend shopping. What has changed is that people are increasingly watching Thursday TV shows on a DVR or computers, and watching later, when they can skip the commercials or the commercials are out of date. Still, no U.S. network is in danger of going broke. As The New York Times reported the other day, television advertising revenue in the United States last year totalled $71.8-billion, up 5 per cent from 2010.
But there are two main reasons why Thursday is less important in network TV. First, the program lineups are less than stellar. NBC abandoned the nourishment of classy comedies and dramas years ago. The nadir was a decision to air a Jay Leno comedy show every weeknight at 10 because it was cheaper than producing a series. These days, Up All Night and a declining show such as The Office look thin and pale compared with Friends and Seinfeld. ABC has let Grey's Anatomy linger too long on Thursdays. And this season ABC tried out both Charlie's Angels and Missing at 8 p.m. and failed to find much interest.
Second, it is live events that command people to watch on a specific day. They have no choice if they want to participate in the mass ritual. That's why Thursday-night hockey does well and Blue Jays baseball games on cable channel Sportsnet sometimes have more viewers than sitcoms on network TV. Thus, Fox is probably smart to air the live results shows for American Idol and The X-Factor on Thursday and, this fall, follow seamlessly with music-themed Glee.
Mind you, some pundits would say the true reason why Thursdays don't matter as much is that things change. Few people would like to think they have been doing the same thing on Thursday nights for several decades. There is more competition for their attention. The audience has splintered since Seinfeld was a must-see on Thursdays. There are more cable choices.
Yeah, sure. But pondering Thursday strategies on network TV is probably futile. It's possible that the last word on it can go to ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who introduced the network's 2012-13 upfront presentation to advertisers on Wednesday. He roasted his own network, plus Fox, CBS and NBC. Addressing the ad buyers directly, he said, "How many times do I have to tell you? We don't know what we are doing."
All times ET. Check local listings.