Summer famously launched some of the most successful reality series ever—American Idol, Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire among them. But as the genre has invaded the television schedule year-round, it has grown harder for broadcast networks to launch new hits in the hotter months—a trend that has continued this season.
The Big Five broadcast nets have premiered 12 new series so far this summer (nine of them reality shows). They will launch four more this week with Fox’s Hotel Hell, NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes and The CW’s Oh Sit! and The Next. Only two of the new series have broken 5 million viewers and two others, CBS’ woefully titled dating show 3 and ABC’s improv comedy series Trust Us With Your Life, were canceled mid-run because of low ratings.
Though broadcast’s audience share has declined with each year, while cable’s originals—now found on more than just USA, TNT and FX—continue to increase, the reason for the soft summer may be more fundamental: The shows just have not been very good.
“They’re not coming up with any new ideas,” Billie Gold, VP/director of programming research at Carat, said of the broadcast networks. “They’re putting on retreads of shows that are mildly successful in the summer, trying to get some of that audience. I think that viewers have seen it before and they’re rejecting that.”
The reality shows drawing the highest ratings in the summer are those veteran players—NBC’s America’s Got Talent (season 7); CBS’ Big Brother (season 14); Fox’s MasterChef (season 3) and Hell’s Kitchen (season 10); and ABC’s The Bachelorette (season 8) and Wipeout (season 5). But even those shows are posting year-over-year declines, and this summer has so far seen no new hits to supplement them.
Cable, on the other hand, has managed to launch a few new scripted players in TNT’s Dallas and Perception; A&E’s Longmire; and FX’s Anger Management, albeit at cable’s lower viewership benchmarks for success.
Network executives agreed it has been a soft summer for broadcast when asked at the TCA press tour last month about this season’s botched attempts, such as 3 and ABC’s The Glass House (which didn’t pop despite a publicity assist from a CBS legal suit) and the umpteenth entry into the singing competition space, Duets.
“Reality is hard, because it’s very much more difficult now to find the shock of the new,” said ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee. “I truly believe that it is a mature genre. So I think the key is in execution and making sure that you have got a hook that you can bring people in on.”
CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler said every season they try to look for concepts that are going to get people talking, a crucial buzz factor in promoting during the dog days of summer. “Going forward, planning ahead, we looked at, what can we do with scripted programming,” she said. “It’s why we’re bringing Unforgettable back for next summer.”
But scripted fare has not seen much success on broadcast in the limited summer series tried. Both NBC’s Saving Hope and ABC’s hybrid docudrama Final Witness failed to break out this year, and ABC’s Rookie Blue remains the sole scripted constant summer-to-summer. But as cable proves, that doesn’t mean an audience isn’t there.
“We’ve proven that in the summer—you see the Olympics, the kind of numbers they’re putting on—if there’s something good on TV, the viewers are there,” Gold said. “To me, the only way the networks can reverse this trend is to start investing some money in some quality shows.”
The broadcasters may be starting to do just that, at least on the scripted side: Unforgettable, which averaged 10 million viewers in its in-season run, and ABC’s Mistresses, also picked up for summer 2013, both have potential, Gold said, especially if ABC schedules Mistresses out of The Bachelorette to capitalize on its compatible female audience.
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