Reality Heats Summer Ratings; NBC Big Winner

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

For the first six full weeks of summer, unscripted original programming has been driving broadcast television’s ratings-and that’s OK with advertisers and media buyers.
“I don’t think there is any problem with that,” said Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA. “You certainly couldn’t have as many reality shows on in the regular season, because most would just flop. But it’s a good thing to have on in the summer. It’s original, fresh programming. It brings in a lot of younger viewers that ordinarily wouldn’t be watching network television this summer.”
About 30 percent of the top 30 shows among adults 18 to 49 this summer are original unscripted series. Three of the top 10 series in the demo from the end of the regular season through July 8 are reality shows-NBC’s “For Love or Money” (No. 2), NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” (No. 9) and the Tuesday edition of CBS’s “Big Brother” (No. 10).
Last week, NBC scored the summer’s best 18 to 49 ratings with its two-hour finale of “For Love or Money” with a 6/16, while CBS debuted “Big Brother 4” to time-period-winning ratings on Tuesday (3.8/13) and Wednesday (3.7/11). CBS also improved its 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. Wednesday time slot by 46 percent over last year with the debut of its new relationship series “Cupid” (3.5/10).
Running an original reality series in the summer is a better option than drama repeats because dramas usually don’t repeat well, said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis.
But on the downside, “It’s even more difficult to have a breakthrough concept develop into a hit,” he said. “This may be the first summer without a new show that could alter the fall season. The ubiquity makes each program less unique and easier to pass by. While the cumulative effect still means better network economics, because they are less expensive to produce, they do run the risk of significantly overexposing a profitable genre.”
NBC so far has been the big winner of reality programming. NBC has won six weeks in a row in adults 18 to 49 and is 15 percent ahead of second-place Fox in the ratings (3.0 vs. 2.4). While NBC’s 18 to 49 ratings are down 9 percent from the first full six weeks of summer last year, that can be attributed to the fact that last year, the same time frame included a high-rated NBA Finals contest.
“NBC was behind the eight ball with reality programming for a long time,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive VP and director of global research integration for Initiative Media. “This is very positive for them. It establishes them as a place to go for good quality reality programming that audiences will watch. They’ve created a destination.”
Media buyers say the networks’ summer gains could translate into ad dollars in third-quarter scatter, but most of that scatter money might have already been placed before all the summer series debuted. Advertisers haven’t always embraced reality programming, but the stigma of reality has been chipped away at by the success of breakthrough shows even before this slew of new series started pulling good summer numbers, Mr. Rash said.
Challenging Content
There are so many different types of reality shows now, they can’t all be lumped into one category. “Most advertisers are comfortable if audiences have made `Survivor,’ `Joe Millionaire’ and `The Bachelor’ overnight sensations,” he said. “More challenging content such as `Fear Factor’ was and will remain a challenge for some advertisers.”
Aside from potential scatter dollars, the bigger benefit these reality shows have given networks-especially NBC-is a larger promotional base for its fall series.
Some argue that a lot of viewers who watch reality shows don’t watch scripted series so promoting to them is useless-a charge that Mr. Sternberg refutes.
“You might say 20 to 30 percent of those watching reality programs in the summer aren’t going to watch any scripted programs, but 60 to 70 percent of them will,” Mr. Sternberg said. “If all you are doing is advertising to people who are already watching your programs-which is what you’re kind of doing in the summer if all you have on are repeats-you are not necessarily expanding your viewer base for the fall. People might not ordinarily watch a lot of your scripted programming, but if you have something like `Coupling’ coming on, which you are hoping to get a young audience for, you could promote it in all these young-skewing reality shows and you’re going to get some of those people to check out the show in the fall.”
Reality shows have also helped broadcast television keep viewer levels up and slow the summer erosion to cable. HUT (homes using television) levels are up 2 percent from last year. PUT (persons using television) levels are up 1 percent, even though viewership among 18- to 49-year-olds is flat.