Broadcast networks' load of first-run reality programming failed to stop the typical summertime drain of audience to cable, leaving networks with the consolation prize of suffering less damage than in recent years.
But not all the cable networks can brag. Some large cable nets took big hits during the summer, and their high-profile bets on new original series didn't pan out.
During the official TV season (September 2002 through May 2003), the seven broadcast networks nudged ahead of basic cable, snagging about 48% of the average prime time audience, according to Nielsen Media Research. The 44 cable networks measured by Nielsen combined to secure 47%. (The remaining TV audience goes to pay cable, Hispanic broadcast networks, syndicated shows and noncommercial TV.)
When the broadcast networks load up their summer schedules with reruns, their share drops as cable networks exploit the supposedly slow season. For several years, cable services like Discovery and USA Network have targeted summer for both new series and new episodes of old series, hurting broadcasters in the summer and coaxing viewers into sticking around in the fall. In summer 2000, broadcast nets enjoyed 40.5% of prime time share. By 2002, that had dropped to 33%.
Broadcast executives grew tired of watching cable's gains. "We are serving notice with this move that NBC intends to compete 12 months a year," NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker declared last spring.
NBC slotted originals in more than half its summer schedule. The new entries included Fame, For Love or Money and Last Comic Standing. Fox tried to repeat last summer's monster success with a kiddie American Idol spinoff, American Juniors and even a drama, Keen Eddie. Other networks followed suit.
But the effort failed to reverse the slide, although it did slow it considerably. This summer, the seven broadcast networks were down just down six-tenths of a point from last summer, to 32.4%.
During the past two summers, the broadcast networks lost as much as 11% in total viewers and 13% in adults 18-49. This year, both categories fell just 2%.
"It's a naïve way of looking at things to say that, unless we show a gain, it's not a success when the typical pattern has been a much greater fall-off," said Thomas Bierbaum, an NBC spokesman.
Cable-network executives, naturally, give the numbers a different spin. "They're just not seeing much of a ratings boost at all," Turner Broadcasting Chief Research Officer Jack Wakshlag said. "The erosion still continues; cable continues to grow."
Said Lifetime Executive Vice President Tim Brooks, "I think it's a summer that broadcasters tried very hard to recapture." And, initially, they were making headway, with heavily promoted reality series like NBC's For Love or Money pushing household viewership up 2.4% in June. During August, though, the broadcasters were off 4.5% from last year.
The conventional wisdom that good weather sucks viewers away from their TVs is exaggerated. Once upon a time—the 1950s—the average number of homes using television (HUTs) dropped about 28% when summer reruns came on. By 1991, that gap had shrunk to 11%. But, as cable programming has gotten stronger, viewers are hitting the couch even when the weather is nice. Now average summer viewership of all TV is just 5% lower than during the regular season. TV viewership in the lowest-rated month, July, is just 10% less than the highest-rated month: snowbound January.
"We cannot tolerate low-rated repeats anymore. We just can't," Zucker said at the summer press tour last month. Programming more aggressively in the summer "has worked for us on a number of levels: from a circulation standpoint … from a promotional-platform standpoint—the awareness of our new fall shows is extremely high— and from a financial standpoint. These increased ratings have resulted in an additional $30 million to $40 million, found money, because of that success, right to our bottom line. As a result, we'll employ exactly the same strategy next summer."
Nonetheless, except for a free-falling Pax TV, NBC sustained the most summer-to-summer damage, dropping 11% in adults 18-34, 6% in adults 18-49 and 3% in adults 25-54. NBC blames the decline on the loss of the NBA playoffs, which also accounts for ABC's 4% bump in adults 25-54. ABC managed to stay flat in adults 18-49, while dropping 6% in adults 18-34. CBS had the best scorecard of the Big Four networks in the demos this summer, staying flat in adults 18-34 and 18-49 and jumping 3% in 25-54.
Fox was flat in its key adults 18-34 demo, while dropping 4% in both 18-49 and 25-54. But this year's schedule was missing the soaring American Idol of last summer. So, overall, the Fox schedule was probably stronger this summer.
The WB was up 9% in its key demo, adults 18-34, and flat in the older categories, also a good report card since the lights usually go out at The WB during the summer. UPN was flat across the board, propped up by America's Next Top Model, which scored the network's highest ratings of the year.
Among the cable winners were MTV (up 19% in 18-49s and 15% in total viewers on an array of modest but solid series like Making of the Band), TLC (up 14% in 18-49s with Trading Spaces) and TNT (up 8% on the strength of Law & Order reruns). Losers include Lifetime (off 12% in 18-49s and down 18% in total viewers as movies fade), USA Network (down 20% in 18-49s) and ESPN (down 16% in 18-49s and total viewers).
The most glaring problem was cable's original series. Certainly, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a massive success for the bottom-rated Bravo (increasing 18-49 viewership in its main time slot by 790%), and FX scored with Nip/Tuck, which improved its time slot by 355%.
But USA's Peacemakers faded after a strong launch and skews so old—it's average viewer is 54 years old—that one Lifetime executive calls it "Pacemakers."
Be careful: One of Lifetime's new dramas is 1-800-Missing, which suggests a joke or two about its audience fade since premiering strong. The same goes for companion Lifetime series Wild Card. A&E's British spy drama MI-5 is also an expensive misfire.