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The CW is bumping Cult from Tuesday to Friday after the new drama failed to crack 1 million viewers in its first two episodes. But while conventional wisdom would brand this as punishment for Rockne S. O’Bannon’s series, it could help Cult survive to see a second season.
Fridays are a notorious “death slot” for television series: Star Trek: Enterprise, Dark Angel, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles all suffered poor ratings after being moved to Friday nights, and were swiftly canceled. Some shows that began life with a Friday slot, including Firefly and Wonderfalls, didn’t even make it past Season 1. However, several series have thrived there, making it the go-to night for weird, cult genre drama. The X-Files is the most notable of these, clearing three and a half seasons on Fridays before moving to Sundays. Watching The X-Files on a Friday night became almost ritualistic. The same goes for Battlestar Galactica, which debuted on Fridays at 9 p.m., but moved after it proved to be a success for Syfy. Fringe lasted another two seasons after moving to Fridays, as did Smallville. Grimm has been doing surprisingly well on Fridays, boosting its ratings over time. So while it isn’t necessarily better to be stuck at the end of the week, it doesn’t guarantee a death sentence.
Read enough articles about the history of successful Friday night shows and you start to notice a theme: “What else do those fans have to do on a Friday night anyway?” quips more than one entertainment reporter. OK, we get it, Hollywood thinks nerds don’t have social lives. But when you look at the successful Friday series (The X-Files, Fringe, BSG and Grimm), they have big meta-arcs and mysteries that fans want to discuss and pick apart. They may be able to outlast other shows on Fridays because fans are still willing to treat their favorite program as destination television. If you have forums to catch up on, clues to piece together and spoilers to avoid, you can’t miss a single episode. So where a generic procedural might fail to draw a crowd week to week, a cult show can guarantee a few ardent fans will ramp up ratings no matter what the time slot — even if it interferes with their weekend plans.
Will this work for The CW’s Cult? It’s hard to say. At just two episodes, the show has set up a good number of mysteries but hasn’t yet demonstrated that those will be explored in satisfying and audience-attracting ways. Certainly the drama wants to be the next X-Files, but naming a show Cult doesn’t guarantee a cult following. When I think back on my favorite cult shows, what I remember are the AIM discussions I had about every nuance of Mulder and Scully’s quest to find Samantha, or the way my friends and I yelled “THEY HAVE A PLAN!” at the end of the Battlestar Galactica opening sequence.
Those shows earned their cult following. Friday nights just meant we could stay up late dissecting every exchange between Tigh and Starbuck. Friday doesn’t have to be a punishment; it can be an opportunity to grow a fan base that thinks of your show as the life of the party. If Cult can make that happen, they might just survive the death slot for a few more years.