“A New Low Water for Broadcast Television” was the headline from last week's Associated Press story on the dismal network ratings from the July 4th week. Audiences traditionally take a TV holiday around Independence Day, but this year, viewership plummeted deeper than it did during the same week a year ago.
It's probably no mere coincidence that Hollywood enjoyed an overdue bonanza that same week, thanks to record-breaking grosses from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and the still soaring Superman Returns. But the Big Four networks have only themselves to blame for the precipitous drop-off in broadcast-TV audiences.
Simply put, the networks have shown that they are unwilling to spend the dough on launching solid original programming in the summer. Despite recent pledges, most conspicuously from NBC, to commit themselves to developing scripted shows 365 days a year so as to keep up with year-round cable programming, networks are still letting viewers slip away to find fresh product elsewhere.
During that lackluster week for broadcast, USA Network's new buddy comedy Pysch went toe-to-toe with ABC's 20/20 and CBS' Numb3rs in the same time slot. Several cable series in first-run, including FX's Rescue Me and TNT's The Closer, are drawing viewers looking for scripted shows they haven't already seen. In virtually every week this summer so far, cable is up from a year ago, while broadcast is trending down.
Cable, not broadcast, has been the place for big-event TV, like AMC's record-breaking, critically acclaimed miniseries Broken Trail and TNT's Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, which had a great debut last week with its first installment drawing more than 5.2 million viewers.
All told, some 50 new series are expected to debut across the cable landscape this summer, along with new episodes from returning shows like USA's Monk and The 4400.
Save for NBC's surprise hit America's Got Talent, the broadcast networks' anemic slate of reality rehashes has failed to stick. And with few promising prospects on deck for the remainder of the summer, that's a plainly foolhardy programming strategy.
Not only are the networks seemingly unwilling to learn from cable's example, they're unwilling to learn from their own past successes.
Remember that CBS' Survivor and Fox's American Idol and The O.C. started as summer experiments before going on to become primetime hits. If the networks want to staunch the Nielsen bleed-out, they need to spend the requisite money to up the episode orders on existing series or give more new shows a chance to get in the game during the warm weather months.
Over the next week at the Television Critics Association confab in Pasadena, Calif., broadcast networks will attempt to entice the assembled with the shiny new series they'll begin rolling out in the fall.
I've seen pilots for most of what's being pitched, and a surprising number of them show promise—ABC's Ugly Betty, CBS' The Class, NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Fox's Til Death. As with such well-crafted pilots as Desperate Housewives and Lost from a couple years back, it looks as if the networks may be willing after all to invest money in quality in order to find the next generation of hits.
So why do we have to wait until the fall to see them? I say, put some on now.
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