Stephen King's Under the Dome may provide the cure for broadcast TV's summertime blues. CBS executives breathed a collective sigh of relief after 13.5 million viewers tuned in to the June 24 premiere of the disaster drama — the most for any summer drama series since 1992. The show picked up another 3.2 million when three days of DVR playback and on-demand viewing were factored in, and the second episode's live number — 11.8 million viewers — was potent as well.
The broadcast networks were once able to get away with airing mostly repeats and reality shows in summer, somewhat secure in the knowledge that viewers were trained to come back when new shows returned in the fall. But in recent years, cable's heavy investment in original programming, plus the emergence of online viewing, became a one-two punch that has dropped summer ratings for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to record lows.
Under the Dome is CBS's strongest signal yet that viewers should stick around after Memorial Day. "We said it was a summer show all along," says a network insider. "It wasn't something that was supposed to be on during the [regular] season that we dumped." While other broadcast networks introduced new reality shows and Canadian imports to fill their hours, CBS was able to tout a Stephen King project with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer. "That stamped some quality and legitimacy on it," the insider says. "The lesson is, treat this like an event."
A miniseries based on a King property was once about as sure a bet as any in network television. But miniseries, which decades ago typically ran between four and eight hours throughout the course of a week, simply became too expensive to produce and promote, and networks instead devoted their resources to making full-season series successful. Under the Dome, a 13-episode "event series," as such programming is now described, is a better business proposition. (Fox plans to bring back 24 as a limited event series next summer.) CBS executives say privately that Under the Dome will be profitable, thanks to a deal to stream episodes on Amazon shortly after they air. CBS, which produces and owns the series, will also benefit from selling it overseas.
But big names and smart business deals mean nothing unless there's a story that viewers find compelling. Dome — based on King's 2009 novel about a fictional New England town called Chester's Mill that becomes isolated after it is encased in an invisible force field — may be tapping in to the nation's psyche at the right moment. "We're all trapped under this biodome with dwindling resources," says executive producer Neal Baer, "and we're all worried about what the outcome is going to be."
He promises there will be no loose ends left when the season wraps: "What's going to happen with Julia — is she going to find out what Barbie did to her husband? What's the story with the propane? Is Angie ever going to escape? Those questions will be answered." And if Dome remains a ratings powerhouse, the producers are ready to make more. "We've pitched how a second year would unfold," Baer says. "We have many stories under our sleeve. There are 2,000 people who live in Chester's Mill. We won't run out of characters."