How summer got so hot

Time was, summer was a dumping ground for repeats and failed pilots. For four consecutive years, though, the season has spawned at least one new hit show for broadcast network TV. Programmers now actually plan
for summer.

In fact, over the past four years, the summer has generated more hits than the regular season has. Since 1999, only three fall-season hits have emerged: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
on CBS and The West Wing
and Will & Grace
on NBC

The summer hit parade began in 1999 with ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which the network quickly added to its regular season—and played to death.

A year later, Survivor
on CBS took the nation's summer viewers by storm and was quickly added to the fall season. Last season, NBC struck summer gold with FearFactor,
which likewise found a place on the regular schedule.

And, this summer, at least three new shows are hitting the summer jackpot: Fox's American Idol: The Search for a Superstar
and NBC's Dog Eat Dog
and Crime & Punishment.

Without question, American Idol
was just the shot in the arm Fox needed after a ratings-challenged regular season. Idol
is so strong that the network has actually finished first with the show, not just in key demographics (which it just about always does) but in households and viewers, something the network doesn't often do.

The new summer shows have also become a sort of laboratory for the networks to experiment with product-placement advertising, says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. For example, both Circuit City and Net Zero have products in Dog Eat Dog. Products from Target, Pepsi Co., Reebok and others have been prominently placed in Survivor. And Big Brother III, which debuted last week on CBS, has several Miller Brewing Co. "malternative" beverages stocked in the house fridge.

Going forward, it's critical that the networks have such testing grounds for new ad forms because, say ad-agency executives, the 30-second commercial will soon become outdated and eventually extinct.

Last week, Rishad Tobaccowala, president of media-buying firm Starcom MediaVest, told a CTAM crowd that his firm is telling clients to plan on the dominance of the 30-second spot for only three more years. By then, personal video recorders and other video-on-demand technologies will be widespread enough to force the development of other ad forms—and that's why you see all those energetic contestants on American Idol
surrounded by Coca-Cola logos.

Summer success, of course, begets opportunity. Just last week, Fox moved up the debuts of two other reality shows to the summer. Both 30 Seconds to Fame
and Meet the Marks, which were supposed to premiere later, turned in solid performances in the ratings in their initial outings, but the jury is obviously still out.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for a second edition of American Idol. Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman confirms that a second edition of the show will air in the upcoming season but says it hasn't been scheduled yet, although it's almost certain to be in a sweeps month.

Berman says the summer has become absolutely critical for the network to program aggressively, particularly to boost circulation among women.

has filled that bill. "Knowing that we have baseball for the next several years, it's extremely critical that we keep our circulation up for females in the summer, because there are a lot fewer females watching our air during October. We want to make sure that we have promotional vehicles that women can see our product over the course of the summer and stay with us for the fall."

NBC's Dog Eat Dog, like Fear Factor
before it, has achieved hit status. Dog
is the top new summer show in total viewers, is tied with Idol
among adults 18-49 and is the top-rated show in the demo on Monday nights (Idol
airs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights).

"This summer has been very successful for us," says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. It's very likely that Dog Eat Dog
will follow the path of Fear Factor
and become a midseason replacement after its summer run wraps up.

Although Dog Eat Dog
is the network's big summer hit, Zucker says NBC has also seen solid performances from Crime & Punishment
and Spy TV
. He calls Crime& Punishment, new from Dick Wolf, a "bona fide success" in that it has boosted the network's key-demo performance in its time period by as much as 24% and has been first among adults 18-49 in three out five airings.

There's more to come. Debuting shortly will be Meet MyFolks, a reality show based loosely on Meet the Parents, the 2000 hit film. Zucker says he has "very high hopes" for Folks. Also up soon: TheRerun Show
and Love Shack.

In some ways, of course, it's just common sense: Given the choice between compelling, well-produced original programs and shows they've already seen (compelling or not), viewers will gravitate to the new stuff.

In the past, the economics of producing original fare year round dissuaded the networks from producing much original summertime material; it simply hasn't been in the budget. But, says Zucker, the networks are finally figuring out a new economics: "We have to. Summer is a time that can no longer be ignored." He says NBC's summer shows are "significant contributors" to the network's bottom line.

A midsummer review of original summer programming by Initiative Media appears to show that summer-program development efforts are finally paying off in the ratings, compared with all the repeats. Initiative compared the ratings of original and repeat fare airing between May 23 and June 30 on the six broadcast networks. The repeat programs averaged a 3.7 rating while the original shows averaged a 4.9, about 32% higher. Initiative also found that the network repeats are way off compared with a year ago—about 14% on average across the six networks, driven by a 28% decline at ABC.

Despite the summer hits on broadcast, though, the prime time share of audience continues to shift to cable, and the trend is particularly acute in the summer months.

In May, the last month of the regular season, the seven broadcast networks had a 58 share of the prime time audience vs. a 45 share for basic cable, according to Nielsen Media Research. In June, broadcast's share slipped to 46.5, and the basic-cable share climbed to 52.

Which prompts the question, how much more would the broadcast networks have slipped without the aggressive push on original programming?

According to Stacey Lynn Koerner, the Initiative Media senior vice president who wrote the report, a key finding this year was that, for the first time, the summer originals, taken as a group, outrated the repeat shows on broadcast TV. "It took a while," she says, "for the viewers to understand that the networks were no longer going to go to sleep in the summer."