Used to be, the summer prime time schedules at the broadcast networks were filled with repeats and those horribly mislabeled half-hours called Summer Showcase,
where, if you wanted, you could treat yourself to a weekly diet of failed pilots.
But summer isn't so dead anymore; this year, there will be more original programming on the top six broadcast networks than ever before.
The launch of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
in 1999 and last summer's breakout hit Survivor changed the landscape of what was once deemed network TV's off-season. This summer, NBC is vowing to have one-third of its prime time summer schedule in originals, Fox will have close to 40%, and all of the other networks have their share of new scripted and reality fare.
"This has become a 52-week schedule. I think you cannot ignore in any way the summer months," says Nancy Tellem, CBS Entertainment president.
Pay- and basic-cable channels have used the three-month window from June through August to make sizable inroads over the past decade with a mixture of original programming, specials and blockbuster movies. Now with cable shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City
and others catching on, the broadcast networks—already dealing with erosion during the regular season—are defending the summer months.
They've at least held the line. During the summer of 1999, basic cable averaged a 22.7 rating/43 share in households. Last summer, even against Survivor, basic cable improved to a 23.4/43 average, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"I think the whole dynamic of network television and cable television has changed in the last few years," says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "It's clear that, as we promote our season finales in May and everyone knows that we go into repeats for the summer, it gives the cable networks a clear advantage. What we are doing this summer is an announcement that we are open for business and we don't want you to go anywhere."
Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman observes, "I don't think it's a deliberate attempt to take on the cable audience. The reality is that our audience will not stand for an entire summer of repeats. They are going to go elsewhere where they can find original programming."
All true, perhaps, but, while some of the summer programs may be diamonds, there are plenty of zircons, too.
"The networks did a whole lot of development and got a lot in the can this year before the summer because they didn't know what they were going to be dealing with in the fall with the potential for strikes," says TN Media's Stacey Lynn Koerner. "So I think we will see a great deal of original programming over the summer, but it's not going to be the A-list programs—because, if they were A list, they would have been on the schedule in the fall."
Jordan Levin, The WB's co-president of entertainment, considers a lot of the summer programming "strike burn-off" and questions whether the major networks can actually afford a year-round business.
"I think the industry as a whole has woken up to the fact that you need to try to be aggressive year-round," says Levin, whose network will launch the drama Dead Last
this summer. "But there are certain limits to what you can and cannot do. To some extent, if you forgo all repeats from your schedule, especially during the summer, your amortization cost is going to be such that you can't afford the level of production that networks are used to."
Levin says shared windows, exemplified by USA Network and NBC's pact with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, will have to happen more often if networks want to "keep the lights on" during the summer months in the future.
And summer can be lucrative. Studios and producers aren't complaining as much about a summer slot since Survivor
caught fire in the hot months. "For the right piece, it's absolutely as good as midseason, and I think summer and midseason are actually easier to break out of the pack than in the fall," says Steve McPherson, Touchstone Television's executive vice president. Of course, he has his bias: His studio launched Millionaire
and will have two summer introductions this year.