Take away the breakout success of the CBS sci-fi drama Under The Dome and this year's broadcast summer TV ratings are pretty much the same as in previous years — in the doldrums.
With only a few weeks remaining in the summer season, CBS is averaging about the same 5.4 million viewers per night and 1.1 18-49 demo rating that it did for the entire last summer season; Fox is way down, averaging just 3.1 million viewers and a 1.1 demo rating, compared to 4 million and a 1.6 last summer; and NBC is also down, though it's really not a fair comparison because the network televised two weeks of Olympics coverage last summer.
Meanwhile, ABC is up about 800,000 viewers per night so far to 4.9 million and also up to a 1.3 in the 18-49 demo, compared to 1.2 last summer. The CW is averaging the same 0.3 18-49 demo rating but is averaging 828,000 viewers compared to 698,000 last summer.
ABC's slight success is largely the result of airing two first-run drama series this summer, Mistresses and Motive, with Mistresses in particular drawing a sizable number of 18-49 women. ABC also benefited from a slightly better NBA Finals number in June. And The CW got a burst of viewer growth from resurrecting the improvisational comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? this summer.
"The broadcast summer season has been pretty much business as usual," says Brad Adgate, senior VP, research, at Horizon Media. "The English-language networks even lost the July sweeps in the 18-49 demo to Univision which has closed the gap a bit more this summer."
Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at media agency Carat, adds that while ABC did put on a couple of new scripted series, with NBC also airing a few, she expected more.
"ABC and some of the other networks did put on some new scripted shows, but still, most of the summer replacement programming was reality shows," she says. "The networks had been talking about more aggressively programming summer, so I expected more original scripted shows. For the most part, it's still reality and repeats."
‘Under the Dome': Over the Top
While ABC held Mistresses for summer after announcing it for the regular season, CBS specifically developed Under the Dome for summer, and also brought back crime drama Unforgettable for a second season during the summer after having cancelled it following its 2011-12 regular run.
CBS was rewarded by viewers for airing both first-run series. Under the Dome is averaging north of 11 million viewers and a 2.8 18-49 rating, while Unforgettable is averaging a decent-for-summer 7 million viewers and a 1.2 demo rating.
Gold knows a big budget series such as Under the Dome isn't guaranteed success, but the ratings results "shows if you put on a real quality show during the summer, with an interesting story line, viewers will watch."
She adds that if the broadcast networks don't start more aggressively programming summer with first-run scripted programming, or just any type of programming that captures viewer interest, they are going to continue to see viewer defection to cable.
First-run summer drama series that drew sizable cable audiences last week include: Rizzoli & Isles on TNT (5.6 million viewers and a 1.1 18-49 demo rating); Major Crimes on TNT (5.3 million and 0.9); Breaking Bad on AMC (4.8 million and 2.5); Longmire on A&E (4.4 million and 0.9); Burn Notice on USA (3.6 million and 0.9); Perception on TNT (3.4 million and 0.7) and Royal Pains on USA (3.2 million and 0.7).
While most of the CBS drama series are beating those shows in repeat, as are some of the other broadcast network first-run summer shows, the gap is getting closer.
Gold points out that CBS has an advantage over the other broadcast networks because its scripted procedural dramas repeat the best of any of the networks during the summer, so it has a larger audience to promote its summer shows on.
Learning to Do Summer Right
Gold also has some sympathy for the broadcast networks saying, "most of them can't even come up with hits during the regular season, so how can they justify spending more money during the summer? It is a matter of dollars and cents as to where they should spend the money, but they can't just ignore the summer or put on shows no one wants to watch."
Some of the answers for the broadcasters might lie in the types of shows they put on during the summer. Gold says cable series for the most part are just more cutting edge, citing Breaking Bad as a prominent example.
CBS, realizing it may have something going with the big budget sci-fi series during the summer, has not only renewed Under the Dome for next summer, but also ordered a second sci-fi series, Extant, from the same production company.
Fox has said it plans to program next summer more aggressively, and Horizon's Adgate says, "It wouldn't surprise me if all the broadcast networks moved in that direction."
Meanwhile with just a few weeks left in the summer season, the Top 10 broadcast network series in viewers according to Nielsen data are: CBS' Under the Dome (11 million); NBC's America's Got Talent Wednesday (10.6 million); AGT Tuesday (10.3 million); CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory (8.2 million); CBS news magazine 60 Minutes (8 million); CBS drama NCIS (8 million); CBS drama Unforgettable (7 million); CBS reality series Big Brother Tuesday (6.7 million); Big Brother Sunday (6.7 million); and ABC's The Bachelorette, which has completed its summer run (6.6 million).
Just missing the Top 10 are CBS series repeats Two and a Half Men (6.5 million); Person of Interest (6.5 million); CSI (6.3 million); and NCIS: Los Angeles (6.3 million).
Top 10 among the 18-49 demo are: Under the Dome (2.8); AGT Tuesday (2.7); Big Brother Sunday (2.7); AGT Wednesday (2.6); Big Brother Thursday (2.4); Fox's MasterChef (2.3); Big Brother Wednesday (2.1); Fox's Hell's Kitchen, which completed its summer season (2.1); The Bachelorette (2.0); and three series with a 1.6: Two and a Half Men, NBC's American Ninja Warrior, and Fox's So You Think You Can Dance.