The tough landscape of weekend programming

Man of the People latest to strike out as viewers head to streaming services on weekends

(Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect recent changes in programming schedules.)

Funny thing as this person was watching the final Man Of The People Monday night via DVR as in the next-to-last segment, Bill Kurtis said “Tonight we look back at the greatest weekly late-night television show in American history.”

I thought he was going to interview Byron Allen.

You’re probably chuckling right now (hopefully), but the state of weekend non-sports programming whose name isn’t SNL is not a laughing matter. WGN-TV’s decision to pull the plug on Man Of The People follows a trend in recent years as syndicators and local stations are completely abandoning the daypart, choosing to air fourth-rate fare such as old movies, paid programming, and Camp Meeting religion infomercials (I’m not kidding.)

Ironically, Allen – now head of his own Entertainment Studios conglomerate, was one of those who had a weekend late-night talk show airing from 1989 to 1992 before converting into a weeknight strip (where it lasted only four months.) Allen’s talk show was part of a weekend landscape arguably more exciting than it is now, featuring fare such as American Gladiators, On Scene: Emergency Response, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Search, and more.

But the weekend programming marketplace has got tougher over the last fifteen years and made it difficult for many programs to succeed. Among the reasons:

– The major networks abandoning animated programming on Saturday mornings over the years, instead adding newscasts and FCC-mandated E/I fare as kids migrated to cable.

– The market for scripted programming dried up as action hours became a tougher sell internationally, counting as a significant part of a program’s budget. The last original syndicated action hour to air was Legend Of The Seeker, canceled in 2010 after two years. The action hour followed the same path as the first-run syndicated sitcom (Ozzie’s Girls, Mama’s Family, Out Of This World, etc.). A staple of weekend programming in the 1970s and 1980s, the genre died out by 1998.

– The major networks abandoning original programming on Saturday night, where Man Of The People was. Outside of Lifetime and Hallmark, no network airs original fare on the night, with the exception of sports and CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery. Saturday is the lowest HUT (homes using television) night of the week.

– The rise of off-network hours airing on the weekend, starting in the mid-1990s when X-Files and ER went into syndication. Today, mostly procedurals dramas air in the daypart, such as Castle and Major Crimes.

– An increase in paid programming and infomercials on local stations, even in prime access (6-7 p.m. in Chicago.) How much? Evangelist Joel Osteen’s show airs on three different local stations on Sunday.

– Increase in sporting events on the four major broadcast networks. The stuff you saw in the early days of ESPN are now common on weekend afternoons. Freestyle bike riding, anyone?

– And perhaps the biggest reason: viewers flocking to streaming services to catch up on shows, or to watch something new. Before the rise of Netflix, Amazon, etc. viewers were “binging” on their DVD collections.

Local stations have turned to Joel Osteen to fill time slots that would otherwise be occupied by better programming.

Some of these factors contributed to Man Of The People’s linear TV demise. But this has been common for years as many first-run programs targeted for late night on weekends crashed and burned. For example, music series Live From Darryl’s House (2011-12) and Tegna’s Sing Like A Star (2016-17) each lasted only one season. Even Fox had trouble, canceling the long-running Mad TV in 2009 and bringing in talkers featuring Wanda Sykes and Spike Feresten. When that didn’t work, Fox tried a rotating wheel of awful animated programs with the gimmicky name Animation Domination Hi-Def, which proved to be an even bigger flop with viewers. The network now airs reruns of reality shows in the time slot.

In addition, inane efforts such as Upscale Chicago, Mancow Mashup, and a local version of LX: TV never resonated with viewers.

But a few have been successful – and all coming from smaller syndicators. Allen’s company for one, has benefited from major studios abandoning weekend time periods over the years, inserting his own fare including Entertainers, American Athlete, and others (though his bid to resurrect the first-run sitcom thru Mr. Box Office and The First Family failed a few years back.) Hearst’s Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien has been successful, clearing over 100 markets. And there’s Raw Travel, the only travel show in syndication. And niche shows work well too, such as LatiNation and American Latino targeting Hispanic audiences (however, both are not returning for the 2019-20 season.)

Locally, WGN had success with Chicago’s Best despite numerous host changes and other shows (such as SEE Chicago and Weekend Workbench.) And NBC-owned WMAQ-TV fills its late night time slots on weekends with syndicated LXTV programming (Open House, George To The Rescue, etc.) from sister company NBCUniversal Television Distribution, which leaves very little to be desired (watching a cow graze grass on a farm is more exciting than these shows.)

Regarding Man Of The People, obviously the show became a victim of a tough weekend landscape where it is very hard to successfully launch a new show. The show was deemed too ambitious and too expensive – especially at a time when WGN owner Tribune is selling its stations to Nexstar Broadcasting, a company known to operate on the cheap. Sadly, stations would rather fill the slots with infomercials, paid religion crap, and past-their-prime crime drama reruns, and that’s a shame. Even longtime stalwarts Soul Train and It’s Showtime At The Apollo – shows targeted to African-American audiences fell victim to the changing weekend TV landscape, both ending in 2008 (production on Soul Train ended in 2006, but remained in reruns for two more years.)

Regardless of what you think of the show (and many of you didn’t think much of it), at least give WGN credit for coming up with a weekend late-night program – and made in Chicago to boot. Even more so, give Pat Tomasulo props for one more thing:

He never invited Mancow on his show.

(Editor’s Note: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly described WMAQ’s LXTV programming.  Also, there was a misspelling of Spike Feresten’s name. T Dog Media regrets the errors.) 

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