Summer TV’s Sizzles and Fizzles

Aug 10, 2008  •  Post A Comment

There were plenty of hit shows on TV this summer. Problem is, most of them launched a couple of years ago.
An aggressive push to add more original programs to summer schedules, combined with increased competition from established successes, made it harder than ever for new series to break out this year. Networks that once counted on going up against repeats found significant first-run competition in just about every time period.
The result: Overall TV viewership was actually up a bit, thanks to the high volume of original shows. But, particularly on the broadcast side, there were precious few new hits launched.
One network executive believes principles of supply and demand are now governing the summertime TV marketplace. With more choices across the spectrum, it’s only logical that hits will be fewer, and smaller in size.
Despite the difficulties so many new shows had in breaking out, ABC Executive Vice President Jeff Bader said this summer proved that networks are on the right track when it comes to ditching as many repeats as possible in the summer.
“Networks had more original programming, and that’s why we’ve stopped the erosion,” he said. “There’s an audience there.”
But was it the right kind of programming?
Most of what the broadcasters served up this summer was reality fare. CBS and NBC took some stabs at putting scripted shows on the air, but to so-so results.
One advertising executive hopes broadcasters don’t lose heart.
“We were promised original shows in the summer…. And it’s happened,” said media buyer Sam Armando of Starcom. “But I guess somewhere deep inside in advertisers’ minds you hope for a good mix of original scripted fare as well as original unscripted, and you worry moving forward that the trend will lend itself more to reality when you see a lot of money and effort being put into original scripted shows that are doing average at best, and half the ratings of things like ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and ‘America’s Got Talent.’”
Another media buyer, Shari Anne Brill of Carat, implied that networks might be using too high a yardstick to judge ratings for summertime scripted shows.
“I think if (CBS drama ‘Swingtown’) was on cable, if it had gotten those ratings it would have been a huge hit,” she said.
Indeed, one of the toughest tasks programmers face these days is trying to figure out just what qualifies a show as a hit or a miss.
In looking back at the small screen’s summer of ’08, TelevisionWeek decided that raw ratings alone don’t tell the story of which new shows worked (or didn’t). Instead, we combined Nielsen numbers with blog buzz, critical reaction and how a show did versus its competition to come up with a list of 10 shows that managed to stand apart from the summer masses—and five that seemed destined to disappear into the dustbin of TV history.
(Ratings information includes adults 18-49 average (or another demographic, if indicated) and total viewers through Aug. 3.)

(ABC; 3.8, 10.2 million viewers)
It’s hard to call this the surprise hit of the summer, given ABC’s relentless pre-premiere promotion and the numerous industry pundits who predicted this show might just pop. And yet, many experts were just as convinced that viewers would flee after one or two weeks of watching regular folks stumble across “Wipeout’s” wacky obstacle course of slippery slopes and gigantic rubber balls.
Didn’t happen. “Wipeout” has remained a consistent performer across the summer and gave
ABC some much-needed buzz during a season filled with multiple disappointments. What’s more, the show is particularly popular with young men, one of the hardest age groups for networks to reach.
ABC officially renewed the show for a second season last week. Executives at the network have said they want to keep the show a summer event. Still, avoiding the temptation to air the show during the regular season could prove as difficult a task as navigating the “Wipeout” obstacle course.
(CBS; 2.1, 6.15 million)
Why include a middling-rated hour that’s a long shot to return on a list of summer sizzlers? Because unlike most original scripted series programmed by networks in recent years, “Swingtown” actually turned out to be more than a pop-culture afterthought. For example, magazines like Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide eagerly served up lengthy episode recaps—something that couldn’t be said of NBC’s “Fear Itself” or CBS’ “Flashpoint.”
And before the network moved the show to Friday nights, “Swingtown” was doing OK in the ratings, particularly given its incompatible “CSI” lead-in. CBS executives privately insist they want to find a way to bring “Swingtown” back—though that’s still considered unlikely to happen.
By contrast, CBS’ on-air promotions of “Flashpoint” as the “No. 1 new drama of the summer” indicate that show is far more likely to return.
Starcom’s Sam Armando, for one, doesn’t get that logic. “Swingtown,” he said, “is doing OK, and it’s a good show.” As for “Flashpoint”? “It’s not exactly sizzling,” he said.
‘She’s Got the Look’
(TV Land, 0.4 in adults 25-54, 633,000)
TV Land’s efforts to expand beyond its retro TV brand got a big boost from this reality competition, a sort of “America’s Next Top Model” for the over-35 crowd. There was something endearing about watching women who break the normal TV definition of physical perfection (and who have some real-life experience behind them) going all-out in pursuit of their dreams.
Among viewers 25-54, the Allison Grodner-produced show improved on the channel’s total-day averages by more than 60%. No surprise that the network has ordered a second season of “Look” and has expanded its run to eight episodes.
‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager’
(ABC Family; 1.1, 3.3 million)
Viewership keeps growing for ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” which was the most-watched cable program for the second straight week with 4.1 million total viewers and 1.8 million adults in the 18-49 demo.
Impressively, the show has grown from its debut, adding 500,000 viewers from the previous week. Some critics have noticed this show about teens on cable has outdrawn any episodes of the more hyped “Gossip Girl.” OMFG, indeed.
(CBS; 1.8, 9.03 million)
Regis Philbin has had more luck in past summers. But this new incarnation of a TV classic managed to attract a strong (if old-skewing) audience to Sunday nights, and proved that game shows don’t have to be tawdry (“The Moment of Truth”) or simplistic (“Deal or No Deal”) to work in prime time. While it’s not likely to turn into a monster hit, CBS has found itself a nice utility player to add to its bench. NBC could have similar luck with its revival of “Family Feud,” which did respectable numbers in a tough
8 p.m. time slot.
‘In Plain Sight’
(USA Network; 3.4, 5.2 million)
“In Plain Sight” helped USA Network maintain its top slot in the ratings among cable operators. The series, about a woman marshal overseeing people in witness protection, last week drew 1.63 million viewers in the 18-49 demographic, which beat ABC during the time period.
“In Plain Sight” joined a lineup that shows USA knows how to program during the summer, with originals of “Burn Notice,” “Monk,” “Psych” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” also luring audiences.
‘I Love Money’
(VH1; 1.5, 2.2 million)
“I Love Money,” another entry in a string of reality shows on VH1, clicked with viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, averaging 1.4 million of the younger viewers in its first three airings. The network brought back 15 cast members from previous reality shows to spark interest in “Love.” This time, though, the contestants are looking for cold hard cash instead of the warm embraces of Bret Michaels, Flavor Flav or Tiffany “New York” Pollard.
‘The Gong Show’
(Comedy Central; 0.8, 1.1 million)
Comedy Central brought back “The Gong Show,” and the loud ringing sound you heard was 1.1 million people tuning in for the first episode. With comedian Dave Attell filling in for the inimitable Chuck Barris, “Gong Show” has been far outdrawing its Comedy Central companion “Reality Bites,” a reality spoof with a cast of comics. Last week, “Gong Show’s” audience remained above 1 million total viewers and its rating in the 18-49 demo was only slightly lower than “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
‘Generation Kill’
(HBO; 0.6, 985,000)
Outside of “Mad Men,” no TV show probably got more serious attention than HBO’s “Generation Kill.” The program was notable because of both its subject matter—the war in Iraq—and its creator, David Simon of “The Wire,” a show few watched but some critics called one of the best in the history of the medium.
“Generation Kill” hasn’t been sending up ratings rockets, but HBO feels it has been pulling in a steady if unspectacular audience averaging just under 1 million viewers on Sunday night at 9 p.m. That reaches a weekly cumulative total of about 3.5 million subscribers.
‘The Baby Borrowers’
(NBC; 2.6, 6.5 million)
NBC promoted a ton of new shows as part of its “All-American Summer.” But it was “Baby”—the series that got the least amount of hype—that ended up with the most heat. Indeed, of all of NBC’s summer shows, only “America’s Got Talent” scored higher demo ratings. And among all new shows, “Baby” was No. 3 overall in the demo.
In retrospect, it makes sense this show stood out. The concept of unmarried teens living together and taking care of someone else’s kids guaranteed at least a bit of controversy. And unlike so many summer reality shows, “Baby” did not feature a panel of three judges or any cash prizes.
On the down side, after a strong start, the show’s Nielsen numbers slid in later weeks. A town hall reunion special barely registered in the ratings.

‘High School Musical: Get in the Picture’
(ABC; 1.0, 3.4 million)
A great brand, good producers and relentless promotion: This show had everything going for it. So why did it tank? Maybe because at its heart, the show was just another version of NBC’s failed “Grease” reality show, which itself was just a failed clone of “American Idol.” That, and not enough Zac Efron.

‘Celebrity Circus’

(NBC; 2.0, 5.68 million)
NBC ordered up this show about the same time it found out ABC was reviving “Circus of the Stars.” ABC eventually dropped its plan. Given the modest ratings and critical scorn for “Celebrity”—after a decent start, it finished with a weak 1.6/5 demo rating—NBC may wish it had followed suit. On the plus side, the show actually won its time slot most weeks (albeit against repeats) and lasted much longer than CBS’ one-episode wonder “Secret Talents of the Stars.”
‘The Singing Office’
(TLC; 0.2, 484,000)
“The Singing Office” helped play the exit music that sent former TLC President and General Manager Angela Shapiro-Mathes packing last month. The last two times the series appeared in prime time, it drew barely 400,000 viewers, about half the number of people watching its lead-in program, prompting TLC to bump it to Sunday afternoons. Network insiders said the series was a cute idea that might have been doomed by audience fatigue from too many other singing competition shows, which no amount of TLC could overcome.
‘The Factory’
(Spike; 0.4, 586,000)
Heralded as a comedy for guys on male-targeted cable network Spike, “The Factory” got some favorable notices when it came out. Tom Shales of the Washington Post called it “one of the few pleasant surprises of the summer.” But it pretty much failed to manufacture much buzz or viewership. Apparently guys prefer violence. On Aug. 3, Spike’s “Ultimate Fighter Unleashed” drew a 0.7 rating among adults 18-49. Spike’s audience shriveled to a 0.3 when “Factory” appeared. That rating is about half the network’s prime-time average of 0.6 in July.
‘Greatest American Dog’
(CBS, 1.8/6, 7.22 million)
A classic example of a show that would have worked great on cable, “Dog” was by no means a disaster. It got some decent tune-in for its premiere, and it was skillfully produced, doggone it. But rehashing a host of reality cliches—fighting contestants, communal living quarters and bitchy judges (sorry)—is no longer enough to get audiences already gorging on a steady diet of reality shows to stick with your effort. While CBS may have been barking up the wrong tree, Animal Planet ought to fetch this show in a second.


  1. Just trying to distill what an advertiser would conclude about the economic opportunity presented by being a sponsor of ads on Swingtown:
    Here are some assumptions based on some observations from Hey Nielsen, This Board and some of my general impressions (biases) about the CBS crime/reality line-up (which isn’t that much different than the other networks – so I’m not picking on CBS per se):
    1. The typical crime drama and reality demographic – I’m thinking is straight out of the Movie “Idiocracy” – and appeals to the lesser educated and hence typically the median to lower level income levels in our society. Not that there is anything wrong with that – its just the way it is. As a practical matter, this would imply a median family income of say $40-$50K with a discretionary spend of probably not much more than $6K per year ($500/mo.) Chances are this group may be influenced more by commercials than the more intelligent/affluent demographic but that would be very hard to gauge and put a significant number difference on it. I’ve been watching the ratings of the typical shows on CBS and they are lucky to do much better than 6-7 Million viewers.
    2. By contrast the demographic for Swingtown seems to attract people who also like other intelligent dramas like John Adams and MAD MEN (incidentally these were the top Emmy winners). Just the opposite of 1. above, these viewers have all but left commercial TV but they tend to be more intelligent and there is a correlation between intelligence and median income – I’m sure the government has lots of statistics of what that might be, but I would guess we are talking about people with High School diplomas and above – so it should average around $80-$100K family income. I believe there is also a favorable age bias which tends to capture the really high income baby boomers who lived the Swingtown experience in the 70s which tend to have family incomes of $100K-$150+K. So my guess is that $100K would be a good average for the Swingtown demographic. This would imply a discretionary income of $60K instead of $6K which is $5000/mo. rather than $500/mo. Discretionary income is the primary target of advertising.
    Now pretend you are an advertiser and could reach demographic 1. above, you would have 7 Million viewers x $500/month discretionary income = 3500 Million $ x people/mo.
    or You could reach 4 Million Swingtown viewers from demographic 2. above x $5000/month = 20,000 Million $ X people/mo.
    Which would you choose?
    The apparent ECONOMIC POWER of an Ad on Swingtown is 7 TIMES that of the usual viewer on the commercial networks. Unfortunately CBS hasn’t been able to market this because they probably don’t have the detail demographic data and have been the victims of the religious zealots and Nielsen doesn’t know how to get it. However if I were a potential advertiser I’d take advantage of this arbitrage and buy time on this show – a shrewd advertiser would ignore the zealots and mine the gold.
    I would suspect potential advertisers like Cadillac and Porsche with a hook in the show would be all over this in addition to many other products trying to tap into this demographic.

  2. ISAJGS (I survived a Japanese Game Show) was probably the best new summer show. I hope they try and survive one of those Spanish channel game shows next….you know the ones where every now and then some hot girls wearing almost nothing randomly appear and start dancing…

  3. One of my favorites, too, Firecat!

  4. I’m kind of following “Greatest American Dog” but it was just because I enjoyed the passive-aggressive bitchiness from Brandy. She was pretty jealous about Travis and the brunette.
    “Baby Borrowers” was alright. I despised Alicea at first, but when she called out the mother of that nightmare teen…it was awesome.
    I watched the first episode of “Secret Life of the American Teenager” …didn’t like it. I’m pretty sure that EVERY scene had to do with sex, in some way or another. “Gossip Girl” is far superior. It won so many teen choices awards, it has to be!
    If the CW actually do start their season in summer as opposed to the fall, it will definitely change my usual summer tv watching routine. Not sure if I like the idea or not.

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  6. Watching sister spouses…these types of bitches are crazy. I could within no way share my husband!

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  8. Apple now has Rhapsody as an app, which is a great start, but it is currently hampered by the inability to store locally on your iPod, and has a dismal 64kbps bit rate. If this changes, then it will somewhat negate this advantage for the Zune, but the 10 songs per month will still be a big plus in Zune Pass’ favor.

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