In an effort to maintain their status as mass-audience delivery vehicles, the Big Four broadcast networks are chasing summer viewers more aggressively this year than ever before.
Fox says that close to 50% of its summer prime time schedule, including at least three new entertainment series, sports and specials will be original material. ABC isn't far behind, noting that more than 45% of its lineup will be original, a mix of new series, movies, sports and specials.
NBC's summer lineup is approximately 40% original, including a new Dick Wolf series called Crime & Punishment, two other new series and the return of Spy TV. According to NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, the network's original program output this summer will be "considerably up" compared with last summer.
More than one-third of CBS's summer schedule will be original, which is "slightly higher" than a year ago, says a network spokesman. The mix includes the return of Big Brother, original newsmagazine editions, a special prime time edition of The Price IsRight, and movies and specials.
For years, the networks have talked about the need to do more original summer fare, and they have done it, in gradual fits and starts.
But a look at the four-network viewing levels shows that they have to get serious about programming all year round. Over the past decade, in May, when the networks really try to attract viewers, audience-share levels have dropped by more than 25%. Nielsen data shows that, in May 1991, the four-network share of audience was 71%. Last May, it had fallen to a combined 52%, a decline of 27% over 10 years.
The decline has been far worse in July, with the four-network audience falling from a 69 share in 1992 to a 38 share in 2001.
"The networks no longer garner the type of share that people in the past felt was mandatory to buy," says John Muszynski, head of national buying at Chicago-based Starcom. "You had to buy the networks to get the job done." But now, he says, "the consumer will find good programming. It really doesn't matter if it's on a network or cable or on an independent station."
NBC's Zucker said the network is more focused than ever on developing original summer fare. "It's something we really worked long and hard on. I think one of the reasons we had great success this season was that we kept the lights on last summer in a way our competitors did not."
And the summer can be a spawning ground for hit TV shows. That's where both Seinfeld
and Northern Exposure launched more than a decade ago. Two summers ago, Survivor
and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
took the nation by storm. Last summer, NBC's Fear Factor
emerged as a hit. CBS's Big Brother
under-whelmed audiences and critics two years ago, in part perhaps because of the Survivor-like expectations heaped on it. But it has helped CBS young-down its audience a bit.
At Fox, three new and very Fox-like shows will be showcased this summer: I Want a Husband: Alaska, about lonely gals from the lower 48 that go in search of lusty lads on the Last Frontier; American Idol: The Search for a Superstar and Celebrity Boot Camp. Beyond Belief
and Trial and Error
return for a summer run, and two NASCAR specials and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game will also air.
New summer series on ABC include dating show The Diary Affairs
and three non-fiction hospital series: Houston Medical, Boston 24/7
and ICU: Arkansas Children's Hospital. The Mole
will be back, and the network will also air a two-part cinéma vérité-style documentary on summering in The Hamptons.
In all, ABC says, the network will air more than 140 hours of fresh summer prime time shows.