Summer television is no longer the vast stretch of reruns it once was. Cable networks jumped on the season like lemmings from a cliff, once it was clear there was an appetite for new shows. At least 30 new series will debut on cable this summer, not to mention a laundry list of new cable movies and new episodes of returning series.
The result and, paradoxically, the impetus, is a change in the viewing landscape. More people than ever before watch TV during the summer because there's more new stuff to watch, and there's more new stuff to watch because there are more people watching. In years past, roughly 30% to 40% of the viewing audience went away during the summer, said Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research at Lifetime. Now the slide has been halved: Only 15% to 20% leave.
"Much of the increase in the overall time people spend watching television comes from the increase in summer viewing," he said. "That's because of original programming on cable."
Collectively, 50 of the largest cable networks will spend more than $6.3 billion on all programming this year, according to estimates from Paul Kagan Associates. Ten years ago, the same networks spent about $1.4 billion on programming.
MTV helped start the summer-launch trend in 1992 with the voyeur-cum-slacker series Real World. The show took off. Other networks took note, even broadcasters, who typically take their best shots during sweeps. This year, even CBS and PBS are doing summer launches.
Brooks noted the immensity of the TV audience: "If, in the middle of summer-the dog days of August-50% of America is in front of their TV sets, that's 50 million homes. That's a lot of homes for networks with original programs to divide up."
Catching a viewing wave this summer will be especially crucial for cable networks beat up by May sweeps and Millionaire mania. Four of cable's five largest networks slipped in May ratings, according to Nielsen Media Research. Of the 40 cable networks tallied in the monthly measurements, 27 lost ground.
VH1, flat in ratings for the first quarter, slipped 29% in April and 20% in May. Preliminary June numbers are already looking better, said Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of VH1. So far, VH1 leads the pack among major basic-cable networks in launching new series. Five new shows were launched earlier this year, and four more are on deck.
"There's definitely an opportunity for us during the summer, especially for VH1 and MTV, because college students come home," he said. Students in college constitute one of those out-of-home audiences that doesn't show up in Nielsen ratings.
Gaspin is taking the opportunity this summer to shift gears at VH1. Having revived the channel with rock-'n'-roll reality shows, the many transmogrifications of Behind the Music have peaked. VH1's primary push this summer is a Wednesday-night movie franchise that started with It's Only Rock and Roll on May 31 and bumped up the average rating of its time slot by 240%.
Like VH1, several cable networks have been launching original shows all year. At least two dozen new series on the major cable networks debuted before May sweeps, when cable was characteristically quiet. MTV, Nickelodeon, Animal Planet, History, USA, Sci-Fi and Lifetime all launched new series in the first quarter and have more coming this summer.
Comedy Central saved its new shows for mid-June, and TNT will premiere its first-ever original series, Bull, come Aug. 15.