The Moonlight Curse appears to have been less about Moonlight and more about The Ex List, just as CBS’ Friday struggles appear to be less about the inherent futility of programming on Friday night and more about CBS’ specific programming.

On a purely practical level, Friday night is a strength for CBS. The network regularly wins the night in overall viewership, as well as most key demos. Ghost Whisperer and Numb3rs generally dominate their hours, though, which has left CBS dealing with a 9 p.m. hour which has suffered from three straight seasons of diminishing ratings.

CBS canceled the legal drama Close to Home, punting on a weekly audience of over 10 million to program the vampire romance Moonlight. Despite some of the most dedicated fans on television, Moonlight couldn’t reliably draw more than 7.5 million viewers, so CBS again pulled the plug. Of course, this season’s Friday night fill-in, The Ex List, made Moonlight look robust, averaging fewer than 6.2 million viewers and earning its hasty removal from CBS’ lineup.

When Moonlight was canceled, several recurring themes were heard from outraged fans, but none came up as often as the insistence that Friday night at 9 p.m. is a death slot and CBS should be pleased with 7.5 million passionate viewers. They sure looked right when the most-viewed episode of The Ex List couldn’t sniff at the least-viewed episode of Moonlight. And when CBS yanked The Ex List last week, more than a few online messageboards contained postings from Moonlight fans claiming that their boycott of the Friday hour had claimed its first victim.

Then this past Friday (Oct. 31), CBS aired a repeat of NCIS in the 9 p.m. slot and drew 11.2 million viewers.

The episode, "Recoil," had originally aired last May, drawing just under 14 million viewers at the time. In this Friday encore, it crushed new reality shows on FOX and ABC, as well as its only scripted rival, a new episode of NBC’s Crusoe.

So much for the notion that 9 p.m. on Fridays is an impossible hour in which to draw viewers. And so much for that Moonlight-based boycott.

In the laziest way humanly possible — like TV critics, CBS has always taken NCIS for granted — CBS got a reminder that the right show on Friday night will absolutely still get strong ratings. It was a reminder that should fill CBS’ programmers with a little embarrassment and should fill the other three networks with a bit of shame as well. There’s still an audience happy to turn on the TV on Friday nights, so why haven’t you been giving them anything to watch? And guess what? There’s probably an audience that would watch original programming on Saturdays, too, not that you’ll ever see the networks acknowledge that audience ever again.

One week is far too tiny a sample to make an intelligent and full diagnosis, but I’m prepared to perform a little field triage.

CBS attempted to fill its Friday 9 p.m. hour by reinventing the wheel, isolating one random weekly hour by playing to an off-brand demographic with off-brand shows. Close to Home semi-succeeded on Fridays not because it was a show about a female lawyer raising a baby and, eventually, dealing with her husband’s death. It semi-succeeded because it was a largely procedural drama on a network that succeeds with largely procedural dramas. In addition, airing in the 9 p.m. hour, it was wedged between two shows that are mostly procedurals. With Moonlight, CBS attempted to do a niche, female-skewing genre show with a heavy serialized component and then they were surprised and disappointed when it didn’t stick. With The Ex List, the network abandoned men entirely and tried out a semi-serialized rom-com that matched nothing on the network’s schedule and then they were surprised and disappointed when it didn’t stick.

An NCIS repeat on Friday didn’t just hit because it’s an already-popular show. It hit because it was the most compatible thing CBS has aired in that slot for years. And it didn’t just benefit the 9 p.m. hour and CBS’ Friday bottom line. Numb3rs was up by roughly 1.5 million viewers on its season average because it actually had a copacetic lead-in.

Obviously NCIS repeats aren’t a long-term answer for CBS on Friday night, if only because the Tiffany Network would probably feel chagrined using the drama in the same way FOX uses House repeats or NBC used to use permutations of Law & Order.

It should also be instantly clear that Harper’s Island, the serialized slasher drama that’s CBS’ most ready midseason option, isn’t the answer either. It’s one thing to count on viewers who happen to be home on a Friday night, but it’s another thing to assume that the same viewers will be home every Friday night and stick with your show.

Eleventh Hour, not really holding enough of its CSI lead-in to justify its cushy Thursday slot, would seem more instantly compatible. Unlike The Mentalist, which would also play well on Fridays, Eleventh Hour isn’t performing so well that it’s an immovable object. It’s a totally procedural series that probably skews male, but has some female draw thanks to Marley Shelton’s butt-kicking sidekick. It isn’t supernatural, but it has wacky scientific elements to placate exiting Ghost Whisperer fans. Most importantly, it doesn’t require dedicated or obsessive weekly viewership. Like Ghost Whisperer and Numbers, you can drop in or out at will. Moonlight viewership was predicated on actual attention and The Ex List necessitated a bit of a masochistic streak.

But does anybody actually like Eleventh Hour enough to follow it to a new night?

While Swingtown, which aired on Fridays to sluggish ratings in the summer, would be exactly the wrong sort of show to wedge into the hour come midseason, the already renewed Flashpoint also feels like a logical fit.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: CBS didn’t err in canceling Moonlight. The network erred in making an even worse programming decision in its place, a programming decision that, frankly, looked foolish from the beginning. It took all of one week and one procedural repeat to see that Friday night’s ceiling doesn’t have to be 7.5 million viewers or even 10 million. The next move is up to CBS.

What do you think CBS should do with the 9 p.m. hour? And saying "Bring Moonlight Back!" isn’t going to be productive, probably…

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg