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Editorial: Networks need to get serious about summer

Jul 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The broadcast networks got a dose of reality earlier this month when the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau reported a milestone: For the first time, household ratings for ad-supported cable had topped 50 percent in prime time for an entire month.
Cable networks combined for a 54 share for the month of June, rising more than 12 percent from the same month in 2001 while all broadcast networks saw their shares fall. The figures confirm that cable is making solid progress in summer programming while the broadcast nets, which designated summer long ago as a dumping ground, are declining at an alarming pace. Cable’s surge is a clear signal to broadcasters that their summer strategy-burning off pilots and reruns while launching the latest round of cheesy reality shows-is a failure.
The broadcast networks’ tradition of writing off summer made more sense back before cable had grown into the threat it is today. In the current television marketplace, the networks must give serious consideration to breaking that tradition and developing viable original scripted shows for summer.
Reality shows have had some modest success this summer, with NBC’s “Dog Eat Dog” and Fox’s “American Idol” leading the pack. But for the most part, the genre is showing signs of having peaked. Reality’s current appeal to the networks has more to do with economics than with ratings: The shows are cheap to produce.
The cost of scripted programming, meanwhile, has soared, prompting the networks to make sure they get as much mileage as possible out of each original series. That means reruns, and with its lower ad rates, summer is the natural destination.
The cost-effective way the networks have chosen to dress up those reruns is to intersperse them with TV’s version of junk food: shallow, eye-catching reality fare. But cheap reality shows, a short-term fix at best, are a risky proposition. One need only recall the ABC disaster of a couple of seasons ago, when the network put too many of its eggs in the “Millionaire” basket. How suddenly and decisively ABC’s fortunes fell after that strategic blunder.
The rest of the broadcast networks may not exactly be setting themselves up for an ABC-like calamity, but they are in dangerous territory nonetheless. Even with its lower ad rates, the summer season has become an important battleground. If nothing else, its symbolic importance to cable looms large: If the cable nets can beat broadcast in summer, similar success in fall and spring may not be far behind.
The broadcast networks have taken steps in the right direction. Their initial focus on reality-particularly with the success of CBS’s “Survivor” in summer 2000-was an effective counter to the cable challenge. But reality has largely run its course, and the nets must shift their focus and move into scripted original programming if they hope to regain their edge over cable.