CBS is serious about tackling broadcast TV's summer problem, and to prove it, the network is hauling out two big names: Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.
The Steves are behind the upcoming 13-episode CBS summer series Under the Dome, based on King's best-selling thriller about a New England town that becomes sealed off from the rest of the world. It's a major undertaking, but if it succeeds, Spielberg and King may accomplish what others have failed to do for decades: Launch a big scripted network hit in the summertime.
And Under the Dome isn't the Eye network's only big summer play. Also on deck: The Poppy Montgomery drama Unforgettable — which was canceled last year — has been resurrected and is moving to summer for its second season.
CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler says the network is making a concerted effort to keep the lights on during the vacation months. "I think we're looking at audiences' evolving viewing habits," she says. "The impulse to seek out and consume original content is now a part of our culture. We're looking at the willingness to experiment and try different ways of scheduling and different times to offer original content."
CBS isn't the only network looking to finally make some real noise with scripted fare during the off-season. NBC just picked up the 13-episode series Camp, a dramedy from Liz Heldens (Friday Night Lights) and Peter Elkoff (Gossip Girl) about families at a summer camp. "It's important," NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt says of expanding his summer output, which will also include several new unscripted series in addition to America's Got Talent, American Ninja Warrior and The Voice (which spills into June). "We have he good fortune of being in a massively good place with unscripted. But we want to do more scripted."
NBC's Hannibal could also wind up in the summer (depending on how well its midseason debuts perform). "If you look at all the great cable shows that are on in summer, I think it could fit really nicely in that world," Greenblatt says.
At ABC, that network plans to launch the new sudsy drama Mistresses and bring back Rookie Blue. (Another show, the paranormal drama Weird Desk, was delayed.) Fox is keeping its plans close to the vest, but entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly has also hinted at grand plans: "I'm going to try a few things differently," he says.
The need for change comes out of necessity. The networks realize that they can't keep losing momentum every summer. Cable dominates original scripted television from May to September, as broadcasters focus mostly on reality series. "Do I want more competition?" asks Michael Wright, head of programming at TNT, TBS and TCM. "No. But it's the reality of the game. And I'm sure the broadcast networks aren't thrilled that we are running into the fall and into the winter. But you have to."
Scripted originals that do air on the networks in the summer are usually burn-offs: Shows that didn't make the schedule in the fall or winter; leftover episodes of shows already canceled; or foreign acquisitions like Canada's Rookie Blue and Flashpoint. But beyond those two entries, few other imports have succeeded (though they may be cheap enough to be profitable, even with super low ratings). "What we're trying not to do is grab foreign co-productions that are already made and cheap enough that we just put on our air," Greenblatt says. "That's not a bad business decision. But with Camp, which is the first time we've done this, we wanted to take a show that we developed and can get excited about."
Wright says even though it makes sense for the broadcast networks to expand their original offerings, they're taking a financial hit by airing fewer repeats. "They're already struggling with an inability to rerun everything," he says. " If you struck all of their repeat runs over the summer, the business model would be very challenged," he says.
But viewers tend to ignore summer repeats, with a few exceptions (mostly comedies like The Big Bang Theory). With fewer eyeballs in the summer, the networks have a much smaller audience to see promos for their upcoming fall series.
Every few years, one of the broadcast networks makes a grandiose announcement that it's betting big on summer TV —l ike in 1997, when Fox heavily promoted the July premiere of the original series Roar, starring Heath Ledger. But that show ultimately lasted just eight episodes. The last successful scripted summer launch may very well have been 1992's Melrose Place, which debuted after original episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210. The 1990 summer launch of Northern Exposure is also frequently cited as a rare network summer debut.
At the same time, cable is moving out of summer and encroaching on the broadcast network's fall and winter turf. "Today, basic cable networks rolling out new series throughout the entire year," says Turner's Wright.
Networks have been slow to embrace summer because to some degree it just doesn't make economic sense. Since viewership is smaller, it's tougher to recoup your investment. "Every cable network is doing more and more scripted," Greenblatt says of the crowded field. "We're certainly not going to have a whole night of scripted TV or four or five new nights to launch. It would be too hard to transform ourselves from what we are into that. You have to make it in a very fiscally responsible way. There will be compromises in terms of how many days we shoot and how much money we spend but that's good discipline for us in the long run anyway,"
At CBS, Tassler says the network is striving to make Under the Dome economically viable. CBS' Simon & Schuster imprint will release a paperback edition of the book concurrent with the series, and the drama will be distributed on digital platforms immediately after its CBS airing.
Tassler also notes that the series, which was originally developed at CBS' pay-TV sister Showtime, has already been completely mapped out by writer Brian K. Vaughan (Lost), so there won't be any surprises. "This has the potential to appeal to a young audience," Tassler says. "So we said, 'Let's look at summer as an adventure, as an opportunity to experiment."
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