Slow Summer Start for Broadcast Nets

Jun 22, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Network TV’s post-strike malaise has turned into an early-summer slump.
Hoping to shake off the Nielsen blues caused by the 100-day Writers Guild of America work stoppage, networks loaded up their late May and early June lineups with a smorgasbord of first-run programming. So far, viewers don’t seem to like what they’re being fed.
While it’s far too early to draw any final conclusions, Nielsen ratings have most of the networks down vs. the first three weeks of last summer. More troubling, audiences have greeted almost every new show launched so far with a yawn, while returning series are experiencing significant ratings declines as well.
“This could be an after-effect of the strike,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP in charge of strategic planning. “Viewing was depressed for a long period of time before summer arrived.”
Indeed, summer series are being impacted by the same headwinds that hindered the networks during the regular season. The glut of reality programming on broadcast and cable nets makes it tougher for shows to break out, while DVRs make it difficult to gauge how shows are actually performing in the ratings.
“The numbers [for summer reality shows] are still respectable in the new world were living in,” said David Goldberg, president of reality programming factory Endemol USA. “Everything seems to be down because of the fractured marketplace, and you’d expect the non-scripted shows to be down a little bit as well.”
NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf agrees, noting that the networks now have hundreds of competitors.
“That fact, along with DVRs, sets the bar lower for series,” he said. “It’s going to be harder to have a breakout hit.”
Not everyone is so kind.
One industry veteran argues the networks are suffering from a lack of imagination.
“There’s just too much copycat reality stuff this summer,” the executive said, noting the large number of talent-show competitions featuring three snarky judges and viewer vote-offs. “You keep throwing the same things up against the wall, why is anyone surprised that nobody’s watching?”
Indeed, cable isn’t having any trouble setting ratings records this season.
Lifetime’s second season of “Army Wives” gave the cable network its best series ratings ever. Showtime scored record numbers with the premiere of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” And even reality is doing well: TV Land’s model competition “She’s Got the Look” has been a major success.
It’s quite possible the summer outlook could quickly change for the broadcast networks.
Many insiders are anxious to see how ABC performs this week with a pair of heavily marketed unscripted series: “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” and “Wipeout.” The latter series, a reality-comedy from Mr. Goldberg’s company that basically has contestants falling all over themselves to complete a treacherous obstacle course, seems to be generating the biggest buzz.
“They’ve saturated the market with great promos and it just looks like light, fluffy fun,” one top producer of alternative series said. “It’s not in ABC’s (feel-good reality) brand, but it just looks different and interesting.”
There are also high expectations for the Alphabet network’s July contender “High School Musical: Get in the Picture” and NBC’s eyebrow-raising “Baby Borrowers,” which gives teens temporary custody of infants. CBS executives, meanwhile, are quietly hopeful about “Greatest American Dog,” a canine competition premiering June 10 that some believe is just wacky enough to work.
But while many executives remain confident, the early results for summer TV’s 2008 campaign aren’t encouraging.
For the first three weeks of summer, most networks have suffered notable ratings dips among viewers 18 to 49. According to Nielsen, CBS is down 11% vs. the same frame last year, The CW is off 14% and Fox is down 4%. Thanks to a strong rebound in NBA playoffs ratings, ABC is up 16%.
Then there’s NBC. Its ratings are up 6% vs. the same three weeks in 2007, but that’s largely because the Peacock had only debuted one big reality show during the comparable period last season. This year it unleashed nearly a half-dozen new and returning shows in the early part of the summer season, making it tough to draw comparisons. A better indicator of how the networks are doing is in the individual performance of series, and most shows—particularly those on NBC—are failing to pop.
For example, the second season of “American Gladiators,” which was supposed to anchor NBC’s summer, has flopped. Averaging a 4.1/10 in adults 18 to 49 in January and February, it’s fallen 54% to a 1.9/5 since returning in May.
Also struggling at NBC: The new season of “Last Comic Standing” (down 34% to a 1.9 demo rating), USA Network import “Nashville Star” (a weak 2.2 rating for its premiere) and newcomer “Celebrity Circus” (2.2 over two weeks). Scripted drama “Fear Itself” hasn’t scared up many viewers, averaging a 1.7 in the demo.
ABC’s revival Monday lineup has also done so-so numbers, with “The Bachelorette” (2.2) proving to be an incompatible lead-in for the resurrected cult fave “The Mole” (1.7/5).
Even the hits are down.
Arriving just in the nick of time last week, NBC’s usually reliable “America’s Got Talent” premiered with a 3.6/10, making it the biggest reality premiere of the summer. Still, that’s off about 15% from last year’s launch.
Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” is dominating Wednesday and Thursday nights, but the show’s ratings are down by double digits.
And while “Moment of Truth” is still a favorite of Fox executives, its summer run is attracting about half as many viewers as what the show averaged during the regular season.
Fox’s Mr. Beckman acknowledges the tough Nielsen climate, but makes a strong case that not all networks are suffering this summer. He points to “Dance,” “Truth” and “Hell’s Kitchen” as pillars of strength for Fox.
Indeed, “Hell’s Kitchen,” which began its run during the regular season but won’t wrap up until next month, could serve as a template for how networks should program summer.
By launching the show in-season and giving it an “American Idol” lead-in, Mr. Beckman assured “Hell” a loyal audience as it headed into the summer months. The strategy seems to have inoculated the show against the usual summertime ratings declines. Indeed, last week, “Hell” notched a 4.0 rating in the 18-to-49 demo, which isn’t that much worse than what the show had been averaging in-season.
CBS has also done OK so far this summer.
While its overall demo ratings are down, its two newcomers got off to encouraging starts.
“Swingtown” averaged a solid 2.5 rating in its first two outings, good enough to rank in the summer’s top 10 shows. (Last week’s third episode averaged 2.1 rating in the demo, down 9% week to week.)
And the Regis Philbin-hosted game show “Million Dollar Password” has also pulled in OK numbers on Sunday, averaging a 2.2. in adults 18 to 49 its first two weeks.
As for NBC, Mr. Metcalf is taking some of the early summer ratings disappointments in stride.
He’s happy about the network’s year-to-year ratings increases, as well as the relative strength of “Americas Got Talent,” which he says will give Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” a run for the money in terms of who has the No. 1 show of the summer.
And, oh yeah, there’s also the Olympics. NBC’s coverage of the mega-event kicks off Aug. 8, ensuring the network a strong finish to the warm-weather season.
“The best days of the summer are ahead of us,” Mr. Metcalf said.


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