By Jon Lafayette and Christopher Lisotta
It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy, which usually means few are watching TV.
But this year is different. Household viewership this summer has been higher for broadcast, while cable has seen some record-breaking numbers.
Ad-supported cable networks accounted for a 60.3 percent household share of viewing for the week ended June 5, the highest ever, according to Nielsen Media Research. Shows like TNT’s “The Closer” and “Into the West” are drawing unprecedented audiences for their network.
Broadcasters usually wilt in the summer, but this year some new reality shows are breaking through on broadcast as well, such as ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” NBC’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time” or The WB’s “Beauty and the Geek.”
Household viewership for the broadcast networks for the first two weeks of June is actually up from a year ago, although their share is down, said Tim Brooks, senior VP for research at Lifetime. That’s because the traditional post-May dip in households using television has been shrinking, he said. In May there were 60 million homes using television, compared with 57 million in the first week of June.
Executive heavyweights from both broadcast and cable advanced several theories last week for why viewers are tuning in. Suggested reasons ranged from the weather and plain old momentum to the quality of the fare in movie theaters versus what’s being offered on TV.
“There’s a heat wave. No one wants to go out,” said Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel. New seasons of USA’s “The 4400” and “The Dead Zone” started this month, and the shows were cable’s two top-rated original scripted series among 18- to 49-year-olds for the week ended June 12.
“The shows are better, more interesting more unique, more different,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at Katz Television Group, of both new cable and broadcast offerings. “I’ll use the phrase from the movie `Field of Dreams’: `If they build it, they will come.’ If you create something unique, people will come and check it out, and if you meet their expectations, not only will they come, they’ll stay.”
After years of ceding audiences to cable after the end of the May sweeps, many broadcasters vowed to launch 52-week programming efforts. But so far, the only broadcast shows this season getting traction appear to be unscripted offerings.
David Janollari, president of entertainment at The WB, said he’s not a fan of the term “52-week season,” but like many cable executives, he sees benefits to premiering series in the summer months, when there is relatively less original programming on the air, providing an opportunity for viewer sampling and greater promotion.
“It’s just about the right shows that connect with the audience when there is less competition, less clutter, less shows demanding and fighting for the audience’s attention,” he said, adding that there are other times with similar debut windows.
“December to January remains a great opportunity when you find the right shows,” he said.
And while ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” is attracting more viewers than anything cable can manage, cable’s investment in drama is paying off.
This summer Turner will invest more than $125 million on original series “The Closer,” “Wanted” and the miniseries “Into the West.”
The June 13 premiere of the Kyra Sedgwick police drama “The Closer” on TNT earned a 4.8 U.S. household rating, drawing more than 7 million viewers and setting a record for an original scripted series on basic cable. Turner noted that the show beat the premieres of broadcast network summer fare, including “The Scholar” on ABC, “Psychic Detectives” (a fugitive from Court TV) on NBC, “The Cut” on CBS and “Hell’s Kitchen” and “The Inside” on Fox, as well as UPN’s “Britney & Kevin” and “Beauty and the Geek.”
And over the June 10-12 weekend, when “Into the West” aired six times, it drew 21 million viewers, more than any show on NBC, UPN or The WB.
Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer for TNT and TBS, said he’s not surprised the shows took off. “We’ve said it for three years that in order to have a successful environment for original series, you’ve got to build the foundation. And the foundation was built with our acquired stuff over the past couple of years. Now we have the platform. And the success and the viewers,” he said.
TNT has plans to continue to run scripted dramas after the summer, and Mr. Koonin said he thinks viewers will find good shows on cable. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “We’re seeing that time and time again.”
Ms. Hammer added that the quality of the programming is helping to make cable’s dramas more competitive with broadcast. “We’re toe to toe with the networks, the budgets are so close to networks’ budgets, that we believe we’d be competitive all year round with the right shows,” she said.
In fact, Ms. Hammer said the spate of original summer programming from cable networks is starting to make it difficult for any project stand out. “We marvel at how competitive everything has gotten. No night is safe, no time slot is safe,” she said.
But Mr. Brooks said that even though there are more cable networks, and more of them are producing original shows, the ratings for the biggest hits are getting bigger ratings than ever, shown by this summer’s “Closer” and last summer’s “Rescue Me” and “The 4400.”
A raft of original unscripted shows are scheduled for this summer by a long list of cable networks, including Discovery, Spike, MTV, VH1, A&E, ABC Family, Court TV, Bravo and National Geographic.
Bravo itself is launching nine series in 12 weeks over the summer months, ranging from “Being Bobby Brown” to “Situation: Comedy” to “Battle of the Network Reality Stars.”
Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick said that over the years, viewers have been trained to tune into the networks in the fall and to watch cable in the summer.
She said all of TV’s summer hits stem from an event mentality, and with movie viewership down this year, “maybe people are event-izing their television sets.”
Cable’s top shows may not draw the same ratings as those on broadcast, but they’re hits nonetheless.
“There’s a difference between a broadcaster and a narrowcaster and to super-serve a demo-to be as Bravo is, the No. 1 most affluent entertainment cable network-those are not statistics you want to walk away from just by bulking up,” Ms. Zalaznick said.
MTV is launching new shows including “The Andy Milonakis Show,” “The 70s House,” “Trailer Fabulous” and “Nick Cannon Presents Wild’N Out,” and the network is putting its biggest marketing campaign ever behind the new season of “Laguna Beach,” which premieres July 25. But then again, said Brian Graden, president of entertainment at MTV Networks Music Group, MTV launches a new show about every 10 days.
“We’ve gotten to the place where we have enough product and we are competitive enough to be in the year-round business and just sort of presume that the networks were our year-round competition,” he said.
MTV still programs daytime and late-night more aggressively during the summer months, Mr. Graden said, because “our audiences are home in a way they’re not during the school year.”
Mr. Graden also programs VH1, which has launched several shows already this summer and has “Hogan Knows Best” and new seasons of “The Surreal Life” and “Celebrity Fit Club” on deck.
As new shows take hold-be they dramas or reality series-and become franchises, “then I think the opportunity we can build into full competitors [with broadcasters] is certainly there and some of the bigger cable networks do it now,” he said.
Mr. Brooks of Lifetime said this summer is starting out like the summer of 2003. “That was the summer [broadcasters] loaded up with reality shows. They started the summer unusually strong for them. They fell apart during the summer,” he said.
Broadcast’s Summer Reality
Since the end of the May sweeps and the official Nielsen 2004-05 season, the broadcast networks collectively have premiered nine shows, all of which are reality
series except for Fox’s procedural drama “The Inside.” So far this summer, the highest-rated premiere has been NBC’s Thursday night one-hit-wonder music performance show “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which scored a 4.7 rating in adults 18 to 49 for its June 2 debut, according to Nielsen Media Research.
“Hit Me” was the top-rated show for that night in the demo, but dropped 21 percent to a 3.7 in its second outing June 9, the same night MTV aired its “MTV Movie Awards.” The MTV show garnered 4.7 million viewers, a high for basic cable but down 21 percent from last year’s awards and the lowest viewership for the program since 1998.
“It’s a pleasant surprise, and doing a little more than we probably expected,” said Tom Bierbaum, VP of ratings and program information for NBC Universal Television Group, who said that for the broadcast networks, it appears to be business as usual this summer with a number of new reality offerings premiering in the hopes of getting a show that can perform beyond June, July and August.
“Three or four shows got off to nice starts here,” he said. “Viewers are responding and are certainly willing to give these shows a try.”
Despite the initial success of “Hit Me,” Mr. Bierbaum said it’s still too early to tell whether any of the new reality fare has staying power. “We’re all hoping we come up with a show that breaks out like an `American Idol’ or a `Survivor,’ and we haven’t seen that in a couple of summers,” he said.
While “Hit Me” had the strongest start, the summer leader through its third week on the air is ABC’s ballroom-dancing competition “Dancing With the Stars,” which debuted Wednesday, June 1, at 9 p.m. with a 4.3 rating in adults 18 to 49, an 8 percent increase over the network’s time period average for the 2004-05 season. In its second week “Dancing” grew 12 percent over its premiere, winning the night in all key adult demos, while its performance last week held with a 4.8 in adults 18 to 49, again the top show of the night.
Summer series like “Dancing” have a specific purpose, said Jeff Bader, executive VP for ABC Entertainment.
“We absolutely want to use the summer to try and establish some assets for us that can come back,” he said. “These aren’t placeholders until the `real’ shows come on in fall.”
For The WB, where the term “reality hit” has been an oxymoron, the network’s unlucky streak has been broken by the dating competition series “Beauty and the Geek.” The show debuted with a 1.6 in the demo June 1, and by its third airing on June 15 hit a 2.1. “Geek,” a winner for Wednesdays in teens, has been second for the night in adults 18 to 34 only to ABC’s “Dancing.”
Besides breaking the network’s reality jinx, Mr. Janollari said “Geek,” which had been considered for a fall launch, is helping The WB beyond goosing its summer ratings.
“`Beauty and the Geek’ is providing a great launching pad to build awareness for the fall,” he said, adding that promotions for debuting fall series have run during the show.
Fox jumped into the summer reality foray on Monday, May 30, when it launched “Hell’s Kitchen,” which opened with a 3.2 in the demo and came in second in the 9 p.m. (ET) hour after repeats of CBS’s traditional Monday night comedies. In its second week, “Kitchen” grew to a 3.5, tying CBS for the 9 p.m. hour, while last Monday it hit a 3.8, becoming the highest-rated show for the night in adults 18 to 49.
Although “The Inside” dropped 20 percent in the demo from its debut of 2.0 in its second airing June 15, the conventional wisdom that says only reality premieres can succeed in the summer will remain true until a scripted show comes along and proves the theory wrong, said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research for Fox.
“This is a very random business,” he said, noting that the last scripted summer breakout hit was “The O.C.” “All it is going to take is a network, through design and accident and luck, to stumble upon a scripted show that works in the summer, and suddenly everyone will run to that side of the sinking boat.”
Fox, the network that first touted the idea of the “52-week programming schedule,” is still developing and programming for the summer. The lineup includes original episodes of some of its Sunday animated fare, but Mr. Preston said the approach has changed now that it has more repeatable scripted shows, most notably “House.”
“The reason why we went on this adventure of a 52-week schedule [is that] we didn’t have a schedule,” he said. “Last summer we were throwing a lot of stuff on and hoping it would stick. Now we can be more selective.”
While CBS has seen success with the comedic workplace reality series “Fire Me … Please,” the fashion design-based show “The Cut” has already been rescheduled off Thursday nights. NBC has a disappointment in “Psychic Detectives,” while ABC’s “The Scholar” has paled in comparison with “Dancing.”
The current crop of summer broadcast premieres is just the beginning. ABC is launching the reality series “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” “Brat Camp” and “Hooking Up” as well as the scripted ancient Rome miniseries “Empire” within the next month.
CBS will launch its reality music competition series starring the band INXS and the latest installment of “Big Brother,” while Fox will launch its own dancing show plus the reality-comedy “The Princes of Malibu.” NBC, in addition to debuting projects starring Kathy Hilton and Tommy Lee, is bringing back its “Average Joe” franchise.