If broadcast TV's summer of 2014 is remembered for anything, it will be for not having been the summer of 2013. Last summer yielded CBS’ Under the Dome, a surprise hit paid for in part by a deal with Amazon that made new episodes available to stream online within a short window. The show’s breakout status proved that the increasing resources broadcasters are investing in original programming could yield big ratings payoffs, even in the traditionally least-fertile time of year.
This summer, which in TV terms ended Aug. 31, offered, if not a cold shower, a tepid one. The highest-rated new series, discounting revivals of dormant properties 24 and Last Comic Standing, was NBC drama Night Shift, which averaged a 1.9 most-current Nielsen rating (live-plus-seven ratings for all but the two most recent weeks, for which live-plus-same-day are used) among adults 18-49—barely more than half Dome’s 3.7 live-plus-seven rating in the demo last year.
But Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming, Katz Media Group, sees upside. “I don’t think they had the breakout that Under the Dome was last year, which was sort of unique,” he says of the broadcast nets. “But on balance they did OK. There was consistency. The summer favorites continued to draw audience.”
Buoyed by unscripted stalwarts, the Big Four saw only limited declines in their averages—with NBC (1.4), ABC (1.3) and CBS (1.1) each down one tenth of a point in the demo and Fox (1.1) down two-tenths.
CBS’ Big Brother was among the summer’s sturdiest performers. In its 16th cycle, the show averaged a 2.6 on each of the three nights a week it aired—after averaging a 2.7 on Thursday, a 2.6 on Sunday and a 2.5 on Wednesday last year. NBC’s American Ninja Warrior was a rare case of growth, up 18% from last year to a 2.0 in its sixth season.
“Summertime and reality fit well together,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP, CBS primetime. He adds that reality competition series benefit from fitting easily into viewers’ summer schedules, which can include travel time away from the living room. “If you miss one episode, it’s not going to hurt your understanding of the show.”
But some unscripted franchises aged less gracefully. While the Tuesday edition of NBC’s America’s Got Talent was summer’s highest-rated series at a 2.8 in its ninth season, it was down 15% from last year. ABC’s 10th season of The Bachelorette (2.2, down 15%) and Fox’s fifth season of MasterChef (2.5, down 17%) showed similar declines but remained solid.
“I think there is just natural ratings attrition,” says Will Somers, senior VP, network research, Fox Broadcasting. “As successful as these unscripted assets are across the networks, they’ve been around a long time, so there’s going to be some natural erosion there.”
Under the Weather
Most attempts to launch a Dome-like scripted summer surprise never got the chance to erode. Night Shift, a soapy medical drama, at least earned renewal. Neither ABC’s Black Box, which premiered in the last weeks of the 2013-14 season, nor Fox’s Gang Related managed that. Fox’s 24: Live Another Day, which aired a third of its run before the start of summer in its first installment since 2010, earned a solid 2.8 rating but benefitted from an existing fan base built over eight seasons.
Even CBS struggled to replicate its own success. Dome’s average ratings fell 30% to a 2.6. But more disappointing may have been Extant. The sci-fi drama, starring Halle Berry and produced by Steven Spielberg, was financed with the help of an Amazon deal similar to Dome’s, but never approached its sister show’s ratings, averaging a 1.6.
More than ratings may determine Extant’s future, however. Both it and Dome “were shows that were profitable for us before they even went on the air,” thanks to Amazon, Kahl says. CBS struck a similar deal in July with Netflix for Zoo, slated for next summer. Whether or not Extant is renewed (Kahl “wouldn’t rule it out”), it helped establish summer as a laboratory for developing business models that rely on more than ratings.
That lab is hosting different experiments from different networks. ABC failed to launch a new reality franchise with either Rising Star or The Quest. NBC, for its part, premiered four original comedies this summer— a domestic production, an international coproduction and two international acquisitions—and renewed two, Undateable and Welcome to Sweden.
“We all need to figure out a way to program effectively, knowing that repeats don’t work as well as they used to,” says Jeff Bader, president, program strategy and research, NBC Entertainment. “Everyone is trying to figure out a way to program the summer with originals in slightly more creative ways.”
SHOWING THEIR AGE
For each of the Big Four networks, the top show in the summer of 2014 drew lower ratings among adults 18-49 than the top show for summer 2013. Average ratings for 2014 are most current—meaning liveplus- same-day numbers are used for the two most recent weeks, for which live-plusseven ratings are unavailable. Only series that premiered in summer are included.
2013: The Bachelorette: 2.6
2014: The Bachelorette: 2.2
2013: Under the Dome: 3.7
2014: Big Brother (Sundays): 2.6
2013: MasterChef: 2.9
2014: MasterChef: 2.4
2013: America’s Got Talent (Tuesdays): 3.3
2014: America’s Got Talent (Tuesdays): 2.8