Is There Hope For TV’s Dead Zone?

Being a British TV producer who emigrated to America 5 years ago, I often get involved in conversations comparing the state of UK and US TV. I’m afraid I’m not an especially loyal Brit and as far as I’m concerned American TV outweighs its Brit equivalent at virtually every step of the way (there’s a whole posting on this subject to come!). But one thing that I do find interesting is how Friday and Saturday nights in America are absolute no go zones for network and cable.

The reason this fascinates me is that in England, Friday and Saturday nights are THE nights for TV viewing. Years ago I produced on a TV talent show, Fame Academy (a cross between Big Brother and American Idol – later remade, not very well, as The One for ABC) and for us there was no question that we had to air on either a Friday or a Saturday. In the UK Friday nights are Big Brother live eviction nights, while Saturday is where The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing face off (AKA the clumsily named UK version of Dancing With The Stars). Both nights can deliver big ratings. The X Factor was watched by almost 1 in 3 people in the UK. Can you imagine a Saturday night show in American getting 100 million viewers? Exactly!

For years networks have thrown in the towel on Saturday nights – using it as a dumping ground for badly performing series like Kings, alongside reality cop shows Cops and America’s Most Wanted. Even cable is wary of Saturday nights, aside from TV movies and the occasional special.

Fridays are a little less bleak but still have a whiff of desperation to them. It’s where soon to be cancelled shows like Ugly Betty go to serve their last season of penance. And some shows do have some limited success here. Ghost Whisperer and Medium are steady performers and The CW has scored modest success with Smallville. Alongside these are reality staples like Wife Swap, Kitchen Knightmares and Supernanny, which have the advantage of repeating well and costing far less than drama and comedy series. But even here there’s an air of embarrassment to all three shows – just look how often they turn up as a punch line on The Soup.

It baffles me why no-one seems to watch TV in the US on Friday or Saturday nights, while these nights are so popular in the UK, especially when Britain and America are so similar in so many other ways (I often say to people the UK is America with a cultural lag of 5 years). It certainly isn’t that people don’t go out drinking and partying on these nights in England – as any crowded city center will attest. And it’s not that it’s just stay at home families watching – both Big Brother and X Factor are must-sees with the teen and twenty-something crowd. No, I think it’s just become a self-reinforcing rule of thumb – networks gave up on Fridays and Saturdays and consequently so did audiences.

But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon – and surprisingly it’s coming from a Brit!

A couple of weeks ago Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution came out of nowhere with over 7 and a half million viewers and a 2.6 18-49 share. Now granted that’s not American Idol type numbers, and the week two ratings did fall off. But it is stronger than far pricier and much more publicized shows like Cougartown, Flash Forward and Parenthood. And on a Friday! Suddenly Fridays don’t look quite so dead anymore.

The reason this interests me as both a TV producer and a viewer is simple. Food Revolution is a really, really good show and simply put there’s not enough of them out there. It’s basically a mash up of cockney chef Jamie Oliver’s UK series Jamie’s Kitchen and Jamie’s School Dinners, both of which became breakout hits in England and should really have been translated to US screens years ago. But better late than never…

In Food Revolution Jamie continues his do-gooding streak, hitting America’s most unhealthy city, Huntington, West Virginia and trying to turn the locals’ eating habits around. There’s plenty of jaw dropping moments – school kids who have no idea what tomatoes are or how to even hold a knife and fork – alongside some genuinely sweet and touching moments, such as when Jamie tells the shy and overweight 12 year old he’s befriended that he’d like to take him to England to become a chef.

Food Revolution works because it’s the rarest of TV – a show that combines smart AND entertaining, a tricky mix to pull off as any producer or network would tell you. Go too smart and your show becomes homework, too much the other way and you’re in Real Housewives territory. How ironic that Food Revolution airs opposite that other UK chef, Gordon Ramsey, who’s Kitchen Knightmares is neither smart or entertaining – just loud, obnoxious and horribly over-produced.

Jamie is great fun to watch and I really hope this is the beginning of a long career on US screens. He’s that rare host / expert who combines genuine expertise, an understanding of what makes great TV and a core decency and likability.

But Food Revolution isn’t alone as a Friday night bright spot. Earlier in the year ABC brought back Shark Tank for a limited run of never before seen episodes. The shows did well, though not spectacularly, but importantly the show is cheap to produce and attracts an upscale audience. Here’s hoping Tank returns for more episodes, even if it’s just as a summer filler (I mean do we really need another season of Here Come The Newlyweds?) because again it’s a good mix of smart and entertaining.

I love Shark Tank because it doesn’t talk down to its audience. The business negotiations can become fairly complex at times, and it certainly makes you think about investment, the value of companies and the potential of business ideas in a different way. And on top of that it’s genuinely moving at times – I always remember the guy who had invested his entire life and family savings in a disastrous doctors waiting room ‘entertainment concept’ that was already outdated by modern technology. Now that’s real life stakes.

But alongside the smarts, Shark Tank is also very entertaining, due mostly to the supremely well cast Sharks themselves. Again these guys (and lone girl, Barbara) are the real thing – they know their stuff and know TV. Robert is the nice guy you’d trust with your investment. Kevin O’Leary is the bastard, but at least he’ll be a bastard to your face. Barbara is the mother figure, but with a spine of steel. Kevin has the looks and charisma of an infomercial king, while Daymond is brooding and a man of few words but potentially could make you the most money. Together they all have different areas of expertise, and often bicker, stab each other in the back (and front) and take sides. It’s great fun.

So I’m hoping Shark Tank and Food Revolution could be a sign of better TV to come. Ironically I’d rather watch these two shows than anything airing on a Thursday, that former big boss of US TV. Because in this economic climate it just doesn’t make sense to me why networks would so completely give up on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s not like they’re all doing so great every other night of the week. Maybe cheap, unscripted TV is the way to go, and as a producer with my own production company, that’s great with me. Just as long as they’re as good as these two gems and I’ll be a happy viewer…