As far back as the ‘60s, TV fans have complained about the Friday Night Death Slot, when it was blamed, in part, by many for the cancellation of Star Trek. Friday evening timeslots have notoriously high turnover rates and most TV people can name a few shows off the top of their head that have been canceled after premiering on or being moved to Friday nights. This self-perpetuating phenomenon (many will avoid FNDS series until they get renewed, fearing investing in these series only to find them canceled), however, is based on a series of fallacies- most notably that networks want their series to fail and that failure is inevitable.
At first glance, the Friday Night Death Slot (FNDS) seems to make sense. New movies open then and many who work start their weekends on Friday nights, making Thursdays the most desirable evening for advertisers and Fridays one of the least. The fight for ratings and ad money translates to networks putting their strongest or most popular series on earlier in the week, and, in an attempt to reduce costs, often airing repeats or inexpensive reality programs on Fridays and Saturdays, resulting in a virtual programming wasteland, reinforcing the potential audience’s view of Friday as a night for going out, rather than staying in. Once audiences don’t care about Fridays, networks don’t, and it seems logical that they would set the night aside as, at best, unimportant.
The lowered expectations for Fridays can make it a dumping ground for series that haven’t worked on other nights. Shows that network execs may like but can’t justify keeping in more valuable timeslots may get pushed over to Fridays to see if they can find an audience there or even just to keep them from being pulled completely. Inversely, shows that seem strong may get put on Fridays so the network can try to gain some traction on that night. If enough fans follow the series over, that can give the network a win on a night they’d given up on (Fridays) as well as opening up the more valuable timeslot for launching a new show.
FOX in particular is associated with the FNDS, as many a genre fan will confirm, and has this dubious distinction for several reasons. First of all, they supremely bungled a few fan-favorite series in the ‘00s that aired on Fridays. They also tend to be a network that takes risks and are more likely to do so with their Friday programming, due to the lower stakes for the night. Unfortunately, though they’ll take risks with series less likely to break through to a wide enough audience to support them beyond the initial pickup, hoping for another X-Files-ish phenomenon, usually this doesn’t work and these interesting, quirky shows end up canceled. They also have baseball in the fall to contend with, which causes preemptions and in general makes life difficult for their less established series.
Friday’s reputation as a show-killer wasn’t always the case and, notably, isn’t the case overseas. In the UK, for example, some of the biggest hits air on Fridays, and in the past, certain networks have found great success by counter-programming the night. ABC has a long tradition of sitcom success on Fridays and all but monopolized the night in the ‘90s with their TGIF lineup aimed at teens, tweens, and families. CBS traditionally fares much better than the other networks on Fridays as well, perhaps due to its older-skewing demographic and programming, and The X-Files built its audience on Fridays before moving to Sundays in its fourth season.
Perhaps in part due to The X-Files’ success, Friday has for many years been the night for genre programming, a fact long exploited by the Sci-Fi Channel (before they became SyFy) with Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica, as well as other shows. Genre series often build small, cult followings which may not be large enough to keep a show alive on another night, but keep them around for years on Fridays. Unfortunately for fans, however, the networks seem to have realized this and have begun counterprogramming each other, splintering the Friday night audience further. For example, Fringe (FOX), Grimm (NBC), and Supernatural (CW), three of the most buzzed about genre series currently airing, share much of the same audience base, but air in the same timeslot.
All of this may paint Fridays as a terrible night for television or, at the very least, an unlucky one, but series don’t get canceled due to timeslots, they get canceled due to ratings. Series that premiere on Fridays are often those targeted at niche audiences to begin with and if they don’t connect, they quickly cease to make financial sense. Also, series that get moved to Fridays are there for a reason. It is very rare for a successful, popular series to be put on Friday to begin with and even less common for such a series to be canceled after this move. The aforementioned current Friday night genre trio of Fringe, Grimm, and Supernatural are a perfect example- Grimm has already been renewed for next season, the odds look strong for Supernatural, which has been on Fridays for the past two seasons, and Fringe, which also got picked up for this current season after its move to Fridays, has ratings so low that the show would likely have been pulled if it aired on a different night.
Though the concept isn’t completely without merit, much of the myth of the FNDS has more to do with over-reporting and confirmation bias than actual fact. Series from every night of the week get canceled, and frequently, yet websites rarely enumerate the cancellation history of Sunday or Monday night programming. This season has seen far greater turnover in the Wednesday and Thursday network comedy lineups, for example, than anything to do with Fridays. A series airing only its initial 13 episode pickup on Tuesdays wouldn’t get branded as a victim of a Death Slot, but the same series with the same run on Friday absolutely would.
Are there some exceptions to the rule, series that networks mistreated and that with more support could have been hits, or at least found an audience and lasted longer? Of course (Firefly comes immediately to mind). In general though, a mid-season move or a series renewal and move to Friday means fans are getting more episodes of the series they like than they probably would otherwise. When looking bigger picture, not only do networks renew Friday night shows with much lower ratings than shows from other nights of the week, but they also tend to wait longer before pulling them. Friday used to be a destination night for television and still is, to at least a genre-loving subset of the population. It’s time we stopped ghettoizing Friday TV and gave it the attention it deserves.