Must Saturday night be a TV desert?

The reprieve of Cilla Black this week underlines the failure of the big channels to grab the young and upwardly-mobile

Speculation this week that Surprise Surprise, Cilla Black's family reunion show, would be cancelled by incoming ITV director of programmes David Liddiment brought the focus in broadcasting onto what to do with Saturday night TV.

Such is the sensitivity ITV has about upsetting Cilla, who is paid pounds 3.5m over two years, that ITV immediately issued a denial of the story.

But the well-placed ITV source for the story was not the only reason for it running. Once Surprise Surprise took 12m viewers - it has slumped to five or six million this year.

Fifteen years ago even middling Saturday night variety quiz shows like Ted Rogers' 3-2-1 could easily bring in 15m viewers. It was the night of the week with the biggest number of available viewers and broadcasters used lowest common denominator fare with its roots in the variety theatre to target the population as a whole.

Today these shows are virtually the same, Jim Davidson may have taken over from Larry Grayson and Bruce Forsyth, but the Generation Game lives. In 1982 Noel Edmonds hosted the Late Late Breakfast Show, now he has a House Party.

Relative to other formats these programmes still bring in viewers and they are cheap to make. But now only Blind Date and Noel regularly top 10m.

"The broadcasters are in a Catch 22 situation," says Alan James, TV buying director at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. "They bring sizeable numbers, but this means they are terrified of trying anything new. They are trapped with these kinds of programmes and the audience for them is getting older and starting to die off."

Paul Jackson, the BBC's head of entertainment admitted earlier this year that some Saturday night formats have fallen out fashion: "Variety is going through a cyclical period of unpopularity. It has tended not to deliver recently."

The BBC, although relying heavily on variety acts for the National Lottery Live, has been using dramas like Casualty and Crime Traveller to get out of the variety trap.

Two years ago Man O Man and The Shane Ritchie Experience were touted as the new, more risque face of ITV Saturday nights. Both programmes lasted only a season after poor ratings.

For ITV, delivering big ratings to its advertisers is its raison d'etre, but it also needs them to be upmarket and young. According to figures from CIA MediaLab, Surprise Surprise's average 5.9m audience is two thirds downmarket C2DE viewers and 3.5m of them are over 55 years old..

When the likes of Unilever and Procter & Gamble's soap powders and foods dominated television advertising these demographics were fine. But now the growth in advertising is coming from the cars, mobile phones and leisure products that are targeted at the young and upmarket.

Some at the BBC are looking for Saturday salvation by producing more of what TV jargon calls popular factual shows.

These can be the people observation programmes - known as POBs - like The Driving School or Airport that work well for the BBC on weekdays, or the more dramatic Emergency 999 and police reconstruction programmes that both broadcasters air.

These have the advantage of being cheaper to make than the guaranteed ratings winners like police and costume dramas, but may not be strong enough to bring in younger, upmarket viewers.

The fact is that those who watch any TV on Saturday evenings are increasingly getting older and more downmarket: "Those who can afford to have got better things to do with their Saturday nights," says Anthony Jones of CIA MediaLab. "Eating out and going to the cinema have rocketed up since the end of the recession, it might not just be that TV is running out of steam. The audience is running out on TV."

But some in the media question if it is possible to rescue the big Saturday night in front of the TV: "It is a changing social environment," says Ian Lewis head of broadcasting at Zenith Media, the country's largest airtime buyer. "There is no going back to a time when one type of entertainment was enjoyed by great swathes of the population."

Cracker, the overweight, chain smoking, criminal psychologist is to return to British TV screens as a thin American who plays with cigarettes without lighting them.

In a twist worthy of the programme, Granada sold it to American television producers this year and its subsidiary, Granada Entertainment USA, has now sold the US version back to ITV to be shown here. The name Cracker is thought to have been dropped by the Americans because it is a racist term for whites.

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