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Cruel Summer For Broadcast Networks

The Broadcast networks are desperately trying to keep viewers from defecting this summer by airing new scripted series. But so far, those offerings have been greeted with a collective shrug. Only one of the new entries, ABC’s Rookie Blue, cracked a 2.0 rating in the key 18-49 demographic.

That may not sound like a big number, but Jeff Bader, executive VP at ABC Entertainment, reminds that it’s all relative and Rookie Blue now stands as the top new show of the summer.

“When you look at absolute numbers, they’re not big,” Bader says. “When you look at what we were doing last summer, our goal was just to get more circulation to get people used to the fact that we have original programming on.”

Networks have turned to summer scripted fare in past years. But with television viewing cooling down as the weather gets hotter, and reruns losing their economic upside in a DVR-wired world, network executives find themselves with a conundrum: how to keep the lights on without spending too much.

After attempting to make a big splash with the racy Swingtown two summers ago, CBS has mostly gone back to relying on its crime procedural reruns and comedies, with mixed results. Kelly Kahl, the network’s scheduling chief, admits that reruns have lost some of their “cache,” but top shows including the NCIS franchise and Big Bang Theory are putting up respectable numbers. CBS has scripted series on Friday, where the network is burning off Miami Medical and has scheduled new episodes of Flashpoint, a Canadian production that comes with a rock-bottom price tag. The latter is winning its time slot in key demos and total viewers. The Bridge bows July 10.

“The economics still need to make sense for us,” Kahl says. “That may be changing, but right now you don’t see a lot of the scripted setting the world on fire.”

Indeed, NBC’s Persons Unknown and 100 Questions are averaging a 1.2 and 0.8.

For ABC, there was little choice but to commission scripted this summer, given the network’s dismal rerun record. ABC bowed three scripted series last week: The Gates, Scoundrels and Rookie Blue all received heavy promotion during the network’s coverage of the NBA Finals, which pulled in ABC’s biggest audience ever for the games.

Broadcast’s modest ratings come as many cable series, including HBO’s True Blood and TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, are putting up record numbers. If broadcast’s tough sell says more about viewer habits, it is still a strategy to which executives remain committed.

“I think all of us are a little disappointed in how the summer shows are performing,” admits Preston Beckman, executive VP for strategic program planning at Fox. The net bowed The Good Guys in front of American Idol last spring to give it a bump and has slotted it on Mondays behind originals of Lie to Me, a holdover from the fall. Good Guys was down to a 1.2 rating in the demo with 4.2 million viewers last week.

“The conclusion we all came to is we have to start taking some at-bats in the summer,” Beckman adds. “A little of it is a learning curve in terms of what kinds of shows might work, and getting the viewer to believe that these shows are not burn-off.”

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