For many people of my generation, our first experience of the phenomenon known as “the Friday Night Death Slot” was the lead-in show for The X-Files. There were several of them, and they didn’t survive. You’d fall in love with a Strange Luck or a VR-5—Fox seemed to recognize that X-Files fans were up for weirder shows—and it would be gone due to low ratings by the time the next season rolled around. However, the term dates at least to the mid-’80s and the concept is older still, dating to at least the ‘60s. It is also one of those concepts that my children aren’t going to understand given the media landscape they’re growing up in.
The story of Star Trek has been told and retold. Lucille Ball believed in the show, but it’s clear that NBC didn’t, and they scheduled it at a time when it realistically wouldn’t do well. Its market simply wasn’t available to them. They were aiming for a demographic that was, in theory, out on dates that night. This may be part of where the idea of Star Trek fan-as-single-loser idea comes from; people who were interested in the show were the people who were home on Friday nights.
There’s a lot to unpack there. Oddly, when I was in high school and not watching The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., my friends and I mostly went out on Saturdays, not Fridays. Of course, I was also single for most of that time, but then, so were most of my friends. None of us dated much, and a lot of the people in relationships stayed home and watched TV with their partner as often as they went out; not a lot of us had the money for regular dating. Which, come to that, also made us less desirable as a demographic.
ABC really fought the idea of the Friday Night Death Slot with their TGIF lineup, one of the more prominent examples of fighting that concept. However, it’s worth noting that a lot of those notable exceptions were aimed at a different demographic. TGIF was “family” programming. CBS had Dallas and Falcon Crest, which were aimed at an older audience. Maybe not family, but certainly adults. Maybe parents spending time watching TV without the kids.
The problem, I think, comes from the conflict between wanting a young, hip audience to attract sponsors and the idea that a young, hip audience has better things to do on a Friday night than sit at home and watch TV. Many of the shows thought of as “canceled too soon” were airing on Fridays. Even if that’s a later season—it seems, for example, that The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour had ratings go up when it was moved off Fridays and fall again when they moved it back, and there are several shows that were moved to Friday in a later season in the apparently mistaken belief that the audience would follow it.
In the late ‘90s, you learned not to fall in love with the lead-in show to The X-Files. It would only go away in a season, and some of them have sunk without a trace. Sliders hung on there for a while, but it was also canceled at least once. It does seem that some of the examples are shows that were moved there because the network felt the show was dying anyway and they needed to schedule something in the time slot, and goodness knows there’s a certain amount of self-fulfilling prophecy involved. At least in theory, a bad show will bomb regardless of its time slot; that show based on the Geico cavemen aired on Tuesdays, after all. But in those days when time slot was everything, Friday night was the one you didn’t want.