Nets getting serious about summer

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Summer’s getting a face lift.
Broadcast networks are attacking the season best known for repeats and extended vacations.
While reality shows such as “Survivor” and “American Idol” have attracted hordes of summer viewers and spawned numerous copycasts, the broadcast networks have never embraced creating original scripted programming for the summer, mostly due to cost constraints. That’s about to change this year.
Fox plans to launch many of its new fall shows in July and August, essentially moving the season up six to eight weeks, and NBC plans to air two new scripted shows this summer.
Fox executives see early launches of fall shows in the summer as a way to combat the network’s annual problem of having to pre-empt new shows in the fall for baseball playoff games, giving shows little chance to gain traction before November sweeps.
“It is a significant dollar commitment,” Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said at the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month. “It’s a risk worth taking. We are trying to change the way we roll out our programming, and in order to do that, it will require that we spend money.”
Ms. Berman said the network has ordered extra scripts for two of the drama pilots it has picked up-Warner Bros.-produced “The O.C.,” from executive producers McG and Josh Schwartz, and a 20th Century Fox/Regency TV pilot from Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller.
Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, said the extra costs associated with speeding up the development process by six to eight weeks were already built into the network’s budget. The final number of pilots that get additional script orders is “very fluid.” “It could be five. It could be 10,” he said.
Because launching shows in the summer would leave fewer episodes for the rest of the season, Ms. Berman said Fox will probably order a couple more shows than usual this year and will likely announce at the May upfronts which two shows would share a time slot.
“[A show] can start in the summer and take us through February and then we would have the replacement show for that show also announced as premiering in March,” Ms. Berman said in an interview. “The dates are very flexible and the numbers are very flexible because we’re still examining how we’re going to do this. We’re going to be doing something very different that really hasn’t been done before.”
Ms. Berman said the summer schedule will also include its share of reality programming and that Fox is considering bringing some returning series back early. “You’ll likely see a very different kind of schedule for us as you see the summer roll out,” she said. “All things are being considered at this point.”
If shows that premiere in the summer don’t draw high enough ratings, it is conceivable that Fox could end up canceling a show before the rest of the networks even launch their fall schedules. “Of course there are shows that will premiere that won’t work and we will replace them with other shows as we do in the fall,” she said. “It’s the same exact situation that we would face any time of the year if a show is not working. We’re not looking at the season anymore the way other people look at it. We are going to be launching a season starting in the summer. That’s our season.”
Ms. Berman said Fox plans to use the promotional platform of “American Idol,” which debuted last week to huge numbers, in May to promote its summer plans.
NBC’s summer plans
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said scripted programming will be part of the network’s summer schedule, of which 60 percent will be original programming. “Our goal is to have one drama and one comedy,” he said. “That’s always been our game plan.”
Unscripted reality shows already slated for summer include “Around the World in 80 Dates,” Dick Wolf’s “Crime & Punishment,” “Dog Eat Dog,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Last Comic Standing,” “Love Shack,” “Next Action Star,” “Race to the Altar” and “The Restaurant.”
“We’ve had great success the last two summers with our unscripted reality programming and it’s very much part of our strategy where we want to keep the lights on during the summer and go to 52-week-a-year programming as much as possible,” Mr. Zucker said. “The easiest and quickest way to get there is with unscripted programming, and that also seems to be the kind of programming that audiences kind of want and expect out of the summer.”
Summer also looks busier at the other networks. ABC has an unscripted reality workplace comedy starring Roseanne in the works, along with a reality show from Mike Fleiss called “The Will”; CBS has slated dating game show “Cupid” and likely will do another “Big Brother”; The WB will air unscripted surfing series “North Shore” and will likely air six episodes of the sitcom “The O’Keefes”; and UPN is considering original programming.
In the past decade, most networks have launched series earlier than the traditional September premiere week marked by Nielsen Media Research as the start of the season but usually it has only been two or three weeks early in an attempt to gain viewer sampling ahead of the pack. ABC gained traction on Tuesday nights this year by launching its new comedies “8 Simple Rules” and “Life With Bonnie” a week early.
However, to launch a new season in the middle of summer, Fox has a steep road ahead. In the past 12 years, only two scripted series that debuted in the summer have gone on to become hits-Fox’s “Melrose Place” in 1992 and CBS’s “Northern Exposure” in 1990.
The number of summer launches has varied widely over the years. In 1992, the broadcast networks offered viewers 14 scripted series, and in 1993 they tried out 13. Fox’s “Melrose Place” was the only success those two years and is the last scripted show to launch in the summer and turn into a hit.
“Melrose” lasted six years. Fox also used summer to boost “Beverly Hills, 90210.” An eight episode original summer run in 1991, after its first season, helped raised it’s 18 to 49 average for the next season by about three ratings points.
From 1994 to 1999, as a whole the broadcast networks only launched one to four scripted series each summer.
That’s because for every “Melrose Place,” there’s a slew of disappointments like “Roar,” Fox’s heavily hyped 1997 summer series, which averaged 3.4 demo rating during its summer run, and The WB’s “Young Americans,” which averaged only a 1.0 rating in adults 18 to 49 in its summer 2000 run.
The low tune-in for new scripted series in the summer could be the networks’ own doing. The majority of scripted series that have made it to the air in the past few summers have not been designed for summer launches but instead were intended for the fall schedule and kept getting pushed back, such as NBC’s “M.Y.O.B.” (2000) and “Kristin” (2001), Fox’s “Night Visions” (2001) and ABC’s “Clerks” (2000).
“Part of the problem [is] for so long so many of the networks burned off stuff and people became conditioned to thinking if it was scripted and it was in the summer then it was not worthwhile,” Mr. Zucker said. “That’s something we have to recondition the audience to understand is not the case.”
Network executives also say there’s not much incentive to program original summer series because the homes-using-television levels are lower in the summer and the cost of producing original programming remains high.
“It’s a gamble. To put a scripted series on in the summer is usually a pretty big financial commitment,” said Kelly Kahl, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at CBS. “You can get away by putting a reality show on without a heck of a lot of investment. In general, scripted comedy or scripted drama isn’t going to be any cheaper than running one in the [regular] season and knowing the odds are that much higher against it actually succeeding, I think most people don’t have the appetite to do it.”
Cable ritual
While broadcast networks have shied away from scripted summer series in recent years, many cable networks have built their business and their reputation on them. Last summer USA launched its hit “Monk
,” which was so popular ABC turned around and picked up repeats of it to run on its schedule. “The Shield” also broke out, giving FX its first true hit. Lifetime used summer to launch a strong Sunday night original block with shows such as “The Division” and “Any Day Now.” And HBO launched “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” in the summer.
“The original scripted series on cable are few and far between,” said Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment. “They can put a lot of attention behind the series that they do because they don’t do that many of them.”
“They also generally go the extra mile in terms of promotion,” Mr. Kahl said. “People have been conditioned for 50 years in broadcast television that summertime means repeat time. It’s not a psychology that can be reversed in one year.”
Costs a factor
Lower costs are the big reason network executives were more ready to take chances and pick up unique formats such as game shows and reality shows in the late 1990s and into 2000. When “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” premiered as a two-week series in the summer of 1999, ABC hit paydirt when viewers flocked to it.
CBS proved the next summer with “Survivor” that if a network puts on a good show that is different from the pack viewers will follow, even if it is summertime. “Survivor” averaged a 12.1 adults 18 to 49 rating and 28.2 million viewers over its 13-episode run.
In fact, in the past 10 years, the only true summer hits have been reality shows such as “Fear Factor,” “American Idol” and “Survivor.”
Despite scripted series’ poor summer track record, ad industry executives were receptive to Fox’s new strategy. “Unquestionably there are available viewers in the summer,” said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations, Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. “A well-concentrated, well-promoted new season debuting in the summer could provide a unique platform for Fox and advertisers alike.”