NBC is expanding its reliance on late-night staple Saturday Night Live, which is once again ready for primetime on a weekly basis.
NBC has quietly started airing the previous week's episode of SNL, edited from 90 minutes down to an hour, on Saturdays at 10/9c. The repeat doesn't attract a large audience, averaging just 2.3 million viewers on Feb. 23 (featuring guest host Christoph Waltz and musical guest Alabama Shakes). But it still managed to tie ABC (which ran the movie Dreamgirls) and CBS (a Vanity Fair Hollywood special) for No. 1 among adults 18-49 in its second half-hour.
NBC had previously been running mostly Law & Order: SVU repeats on Saturdays at 10. But Saturday has become such a dead zone for the networks that running a repurposed SNL makes more economic and ratings sense than airing a repeat of a scripted series. That's because the license fee structure and residual payments are much lower for an SNL repeat than they are for a scripted primetime rerun. (Drama encores, along with sports, theatrical movies and newsmagazines, have become the standard Saturday night fare at the networks).
"It's not crazy," says one rival programmer. "[NBC] has always been pretty good about mining SNL for repurposed material. I guess this is just a continuation of that. It does make me wonder if that's too much SNL in a pretty small window."
NBC has occasionally aired SNL Weekend Update specials on Thursday nights, and a number of primetime SNL holiday-themed and best-of specials remain a part of the network's arsenal. But this is the first time in decades that SNL episodes were given a weekly primetime berth. (Edited reruns, dubbed The Best of Saturday Night Live, aired in primetime during another rough patch in NBC history, its low-rated 1979-80 TV season.)
This isn't NBC's only Saturday-night experiment. At 8pm, it airs a one-hour version of American Ninja Warrior, culled from three hours that aired weekly last summer (two hours on G4, one on NBC), plus bonus content.
The SNL and Ninja Warrior scheduling is a creative way to offer something different from a drama repeat, but still a far cry from the days when Saturday truly mattered to the networks. In the 1970s and '80s, it was one of the most-watched nights of the week, thanks to programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Love Boat and The Golden Girls. By 2004, all of the networks had stopped airing first-run scripted series on the night.
Given NBC's ratings collapse this winter, Saturday is hardly a priority: The Peacock is bleeding throughout the week. But the Saturday moves are an easy way to at least drive a few more viewers to the 11:30pm airing of Saturday Night Live. Here's how important the first-run SNL is: it now posts higher ratings than all of NBC's primetime comedies. NBC insiders say the 10 p.m. repeat — which is edited with the approval of executive producer Lorne Michaels — drives viewers to the 11:30 p.m. original.
This Saturday (March 2) NBC will air an SNL repeat with host Louis C.K. and musical guest Fun. at 10/9c, followed by an all-new episode at 11:30/10:30c with host Kevin Hart and musical guests Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.