Who says the summer months are the dog days of prime time television?
A combination of original series, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the new CBS reality-game show Survivor has helped the major broadcast networks keep viewers watching during a time of year usually reserved for repeats and beach parties.
All of the Big Four networks are bringing new shows to the small screen this summer, in an effort to stem the audience flow to cable. It seems to be working.
"I think we are seeing somewhat of a trend, one that started with Millionaire proving that you could do something original in the summertime that could bring viewers back to network, and it carried them through the season," says TN Media's Stacey Lynn Koerner. "And I think Survivor has a lot to do with what's going on right now. I think people had gotten into the habit of not looking to network programming once the season is over and looking over at cable."
The numbers prove it. Compared with the first week last summer, the Big Four (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) combined are up 5% in households (25.9 rating/47 share vs. 24.7/45) and 9% in total viewers (37.5 million vs. 34.3 million). Households using television are also up 2% this summer (55.8 million vs. 54.5 million), and the demographic ratings are also showing growth early on.
And to repeat, it's early. "Summer cable ratings may not necessarily jump much, but share goes up," said Brad Adgate, director of research for Horizon Media Inc. Cable's collective share is typically around 35 or 36 in February, compared with about 45 in July. Evidence of the summer jump is already at hand. Based on the cable universe of 79 million households, ad-supported cable networks collectively pulled in a 24 rating with a 43 share for June 1-7, compared with a 22.6 rating and a 39 share for the month of May.
At the broadcast networks, though, a fascinating story line is being written. When the networks announced their fall schedules just a month ago, competing networks whined that they couldn't beat Millionaire. Now Survivor has tackled ABC's Millionaire twice and basically robbed the bank.
In its second outing Wednesday (June 7), Survivor toppled Millionaire and even NBC's NBA Finals coverage across the board.
Is ABC worried? "No, not at all," a spokesman said. "Millionaire is a series. It consistently draws huge audiences. But it's a series up against a stunt. Survivor is new, and CBS promoted the hell out of it, and kudos to them." As to the speculation the ABC hit is fading, he said, "The perception, to be honest, is only in the media. Viewers don't think that."
Nonetheless, Survivor improved over its first week 14% in household ratings (11.7/21 vs. 10.3/18), 17% in total viewers (18.1 million vs. 15.5 million) and 23% in adults 18-49 (7.5/25 vs. 6.1/20).
But it was an extraordinary moment. For the 8 p.m. time period on Wednesday (June 7), the Big Four networks averaged a whopping 33.5 rating/61 share in households.
Tim Spengler, executive vice president and director of national broadcast at Initiative Media, says advertisers have generally spent a bigger chunk of their dollars on cable programming during the summer because of all the repeats on network television.
Now, he says, "if they run more first-run programming alternatives outside of the normal season, especially shows like Survivor and Millionaire, you will probably see money coming out of cable accounts and onto broadcast during the summer. But, if these shows start to fade and the other original shows don't work, then I don't know. The big question is how long the trend will last."
Besides CBS, which also has a five-night-a-week reality series, Big Brother, debuting in July, the other networks are also getting in on the act.
ABC has fresh editions of Millionaire spread throughout the summer, along with new summer animated series Clerks and fresh Making the Band episodes. NBC's summer comedy M.Y.O.B. debuted on June 6 and scored the network's best summer-series premiere numbers since 1993. NBC is also set to debut the animated series Sammy from David Spade (Just Shoot Me) in mid-July. FOX has a series of game shows and original series, including Master Game from reality producer Nash Entertainment. The network will premier new drama Opposite Sex at the end of the month. The WB has a co-sponsored Coca-Cola series titled Young Americans and an animated series, while UPN has a full summer of original WWF Smackdown!.