A few years ago, the broadcast networks finally woke up from their summer slumber and realized they'd ceded too much ground during the warmer months. Cable was winning the battle for the hearts and eyes of summer TV viewers by offering heavily promoted scripted fare — and the networks were mostly in rerun hell. "People got used to going away from the broadcasters in the summer," says The CW president Mark Pedowitz. "Now you're dealing with viewing patterns and trying to change them."
Audiences typically no longer watch reruns during the summer (other than those on CBS), which is why original programming is critical. But despite years of talking about "year-round development" and making summer a priority, the broadcasters still stick mostly to low-budget reality or scripted shows that are international acquisitions (like NBC's Saving Hope and ABC's Rookie Blue, both Canadian co-productions). There are no high-end offerings in the same vein as HBO's The Newsroom or USA's Political Animals.
"I don't think the networks are going to be able to move the needle," says Horizon Media's Brad Adgate. Meanwhile, it's shaping up to be another landmark summer for cable, which kicked off the season by reaching a new threshold: History (fueled by Hatfields & McCoys) won the week ending June 3 in total viewers, besting all of the broadcast networks.
HBO just segued from the popular Game of Thrones to the even higher rated True Blood, both demo hits despite the pay service's being available in fewer homes. TNT's Rizzoli & Isles is a Top 10 show, while the launch of its Dallas reboot averaged almost 7 million viewers (the best this year for a scripted cable premiere). USA cornered the summer blue-sky market with shows like White Collar and Royal Pains. FX is expected to open big with Charlie Sheen's Anger Management. And A&E just broke another record with Longmire, which opened to a channel-best premiere of 4.1 million viewers.
"Summer continues to be cable season," says A&E president and general manager Bob DeBitetto. He touts the quality of cable's summer shows, while also noting "the ability of networks like ours to market effectively, target audiences, create events around an opening, and really work to open a show the way the Hollywood studios open a big summer movie."
The assumption used to be that viewing levels were so low in the summer that programming during those months was akin to yelling into a vacuum. That's still true during certain times — the week of July 4, for example. But Hatfields debuted on Memorial Day (when the competition was light) to those big numbers. "People are watching TV in the summer, for sure," DeBitetto says. "It's about choosing when to target those audiences. Weather is better, people are out later, but there are plenty of Americans still watching TV."
DeBitetto adds: "There's a lot of broadcast fare on during the summer, but it all seems similar. If it all feels like it's not quite up to the level of the shows that the broadcast networks field in the fall, I think audiences are perceptive to that."
Of course, the broadcast networks could easily stake their claim in the summer if they wanted to, by moving some marquee properties there. A few years ago ABC execs even brainstormed one way to do it: Air original episodes of Lost or Desperate Housewives. Such a move might have changed the game, tipping the off-season balance of power back to the networks. But ABC would have taken a financial hit, as those shows were too valuable as in-season players. The idea was a non-starter.
Should CBS manage to strike a deal to revive its recently canceled drama Unforgettable for next summer, the move could be the first step in attracting a sizable audience to a broadcast network scripted drama during the off-season. (Others that have worked go back more than 20 years: A summer 1991 run of Beverly Hills, 90210 on Fox and CBS' Northern Exposure in 1990.)
The broadcast networks prefer to save their marketing dollars for massive fall campaigns, which means cable may continue to hold the upper hand in the summer. "The one bright spot this summer [for broadcast TV] will be the London Olympics on NBC, but even many of those events will wind up on cable," notes Adgate. What's more, many of the broadcasters' summer staples have been on for several years and are likely now on the slide toward viewer erosion and fatigue.
But the broadcast networks can't just go dark for the season; they need some circulation in order to promote their fall wares. ABC is getting particularly aggressive launching the music competition Duets, the Big Brother rival Glass House and the comedy improv show Trust Us With Your Life, in addition to returning series like Wipeout, The Bachelorette and Secret Millionaire. (Some network insiders worry that it's too much, but ABC is clearly trying to get a few of them to stick.)
At The CW, which has always gone dark during the summer, Pedowitz hopes to attract an audience with the "extreme musical chairs" show Oh Sit! and the Queen Latifah music competition The Next: Fame Is at Your Doorstep. CBS is launching Year 12 of Big Brother, but looked to expand things with Dogs In the City. NBC does well with America's Got Talent, and is increasing its relationship series output with Love in the Wild. Fox has the dating series The Choice and remains committed to So You Think You Can Dance and a buffet of Gordon Ramsay series.
Pedowitz says it's critical for the networks to regain some momentum. "The challenge is, we put programming on and hopefully begin to train audiences that we haven't disappeared," he says. "It's not easy to do, because you only have a certain amount of marketing dollars. Whether we're successful or unsuccessful this first go-round in getting summer programming out there, we're out there. If you don't try, you'll never have a chance at succeeding."