Memo to broadcast-network execs: Say goodbye to summer vacation. Forget beating an early retreat to the beach house. Summer is the new fall, as competitive as any other time of the year.
But, while broadcasters are working harder to keep viewers, the networks' biggest success over the past five years has been stemming the flow from broadcast to cable.
In the past five years, summer viewing levels were the lowest in 1999, when 53.7% of households tuned into the broadcast networks. But audiences rebounded in 2000, the best summer year, when NBC, driven by the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, saw viewership shoot up to 55.9% of households.
Also in the 2000 mix, viewers were drawn to CBS's Survivor, but, at only one hour per week, it's unlikely the show pulled average audiences up on its own.
The year with the second-highest summer audience in recent years, 2003, saw 55.2% of households tuning in. Even 2002, when American Idol
hit the scene, wasn't as impressive.
"If there are several scripted series launching in the summer, they have a chance to succeed, as long as people know they are not just limited-run or failed series being burned off," says Steve Sternberg, executive vice president and director of audience analysis at Interpublic Groups Magna USA.
"The only way to change people's expectations and viewing habits is to do it for a few years in a row," adds Sternberg.
While summer ratings have been on an upward trajectory for the networks, average audiences during the season have stayed basically the same, ranging from 60.6% in 1999-00 to 61% in 2003-04.
To both keep and increase viewers, broadcast networks have employed two strategies: First, they have programmed a slew of reality shows; second, they have aired fewer repeats. Both tactics have worked sufficiently to find their way onto networks' year-round schedules.
In summer 2003, for example, 44% of networks' schedules were first-run programming, compared with 39% the previous year. The success of Survivor, American Idol, and The O.C., all introduced in summer, has encouraged the networks to ramp up warm-weather entries.
To that end, NBC has planned a full slate of unscripted summer shows, including the return of Last Comic Standing, For Love or Money, Who Wants To Marry My Dad?, and the new entry Next Action Star.
Last year, NBC's unscripted shows—even failed ones, such as Fame—managed to substantially improve their respective time periods among adults 18-49, which is all NBC hopes for during the summer.
Even CBS, which generally eschews program-scheduling gimmicks, has devoted much of its summer to unscripted, summer-only shows. CBS's summer staples include Big Brother, which airs three nights a week, and The Amazing Race. Race
has been promoted to Saturday nights this fall, while keeping its summer run on Tuesdays at 10, starting July 6.
Despite these maneuvers, cable executives say broadcasters' best efforts haven't kept ratings from declining.
According to Nielsen Media Research, the Big Four broadcast networks collectively declined 2% in viewers from summer 2002 to summer 2003.
On the flip side, only NBC and Fox declined in adults 18-49 from 2002 to 2003. Fox dropped off because it moved mega-hit American Idol
Broadcasters can't pretend their summer strategy has brought viewers back to their networks, but they view the exodus philosophically. "Without original programming in the summer, erosion to cable would be much worse," says Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning.
And it serves another key purpose. Fox retains audiences who would regularly watch unscripted shows on cable.