‘Talent’ Could Outlast Summer

Jun 26, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Just four weeks after the end of May sweeps, at least one new summer show has demonstrated the ratings strength for potential graduation to the more competitive regular television season.

NBC’s highly promoted variety competition series “America’s Got Talent,” which is produced by “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell and hosted by Regis Philbin, premiered last Thursday with a 4.6 rating in adults 18 to 49, a number that includes live viewing and same-day viewing via digital video recorders, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But insiders are saying the broadcast networks may be missing out on the opportunity to launch more shows with staying power this summer.

The networks have proven for years that long gone are the lazy days of repeats-dominated summertime-and that the potential for new shows to pop in summer is huge.

With the exception of 2004, at least one new prime-time hit with regular-season legs was discovered during the summer since ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” took off in 1999.

Broadcast network executives should be more proactive this summer-and aim higher when rethinking summer programming, according to John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for ad agency Campbell Mithun.

“The networks should move aggressively towards a non-repeat model, perhaps with less expensive programs, with unknown actors and writers, but still offer viewers something novel in the summer,” Mr. Rash said. “The networks could hardly do any worse than to open up their airwaves in the summer to the next generation of talent.”

“Talent” boasts the best debut for any series on the networks that has premiered since the end of May sweeps. The June 21 debut outperformed NBC’s 2005-06 season average in the 9 p.m. (ET) to 11 p.m. Thursday time period by 44 percent.

While “Talent’s” performance so far indicates that NBC may have a reliable new franchise for the 2006-07 season, returning shows generally have outpaced series debuts this summer on the broadcast networks.

Since the end of May sweeps, more than a dozen entries have debuted on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, with established series filling out the top of the ratings charts and the majority of newcomers garnering either modest or poor ratings in their initial outings.

After two airings, CBS has already pulled its soapy reality series “Tuesday Night Book Club” from its schedule.

Through the end of last week, the second season of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” was the No. 2 summer debut. Along with “Dance,” returning reality series like NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” have eclipsed new summer series, Mr. Rash said.

“This summer has been more a confirmation of previous summer hits than emerging new ones,” Mr. Rash said.

The initial success of “Talent” shows that certain kinds of programs perform best for broadcasters during the summer months, Mr. Rash said.

“It’s easily understood, entertaining and is broadly accessible to a vast audience,” he said. “The original iteration of `American Idol,’ `Dancing With the Stars’ and now this are a television template for casual summer viewing.”

The networks have focused mainly on lighter reality series to freshen up their schedules post-May sweeps. The one outlier this season has been NBC’s drama “Windfall.”

This is in stark contrast to the cable networks, which besides offering plenty of high-profile reality debuts (think Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and the July return of “Project Runway”), have launched some big scripted series.

HBO’s “Entourage” and FX’s “Rescue Me” both returned for additional summer seasons to healthy ratings, while TNT’s “The Closer” boasted a debut that rivaled broadcast premiere numbers.

The June 12 second-season premiere of “The Closer” delivered a 2.0 rating in adults 18 to 49 and 8.3 million viewers. That outperformed ABC’s “How to Get the Guy” and CBS’s “Book Club” in the demo and outperformed a number of new offerings in total viewers, including “Windfall.”

Cable’s momentum should not be discounted by the broadcasters, said Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for media buyer Carat. Rather, it should spur the networks.

Reality certainly has been the primary genre represented among the broadcast network shows that have gone on to do big business during the rest of the season. Fox’s “American Idol” and last summer’s “Dancing With the Stars” serve as prime examples.

But it’s time for network executives to move beyond just providing reality alternatives, Ms. Brill said.

“If you want to counter the inroads cable makes in the summer months, you have to bring out some bigger ammunition,” she said. “All that reality, it’s only a select few [series] that will pop.”

But after several summers of light reality on broadcast and big scripted guns on cable, a pattern has been established, Mr. Rash said.

“Viewers have been conditioned to expect repeats and summer reality on the [broadcast] networks, and first-run marquee on cable during the summer,” he said. “That may be a historical challenge to the networks, because it is hard to get that behavior to change again.”