TV executives once enjoyed a well-earned lull this time of year. But in the broadcast business, there’s no longer any such thing as summer vacation.
For years, broadcast nets had a monopoly on viewership during the fall-tospring broadcast season and even managed decent numbers by airing repeats during the summer. But with cable and other distractions eating into that share, all five networks have gradually been adding more original scripted series in the warmest months.
“Summer really has become a new battleground for networks,” says Andy Kubitz, ABC executive VP of program planning and scheduling.
In summer 2008, the Big Four aired a combined total of three original scripted series. The next summer, the total rose to five. This summer, the five broadcast nets are showing 17 scripted series, nine of which are new. While those numbers are down slightly from last summer’s 19 scripted shows, including 13 new ones, that drop-off is only an aberration amid a secular industry-wide shift, Kubitz says.
With accelerating effectiveness, cable has created events from scripted series runs, pulling viewers away from broadcast’s summer reruns. “Repeats just don’t work anymore,” Kubitz says.
The true shift began a decade ago thanks to the DVR, Kubitz says. With the ability to tape shows viewers don’t miss many episodes, so they don’t need to catch up during the summer. That progression only accelerated with the availability of on-demand episodes and, later, over-the-top services. “It forces us to create more and more original programming,” Kubitz says.
‘A Great Place for Big, Bold Ideas’
The year 2013 marked a turning point in broadcast summer strategy when a massive dome came crashing down in the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine—thanks to CBS. The network’s sci-fi series Under the Dome averaged 11.2 million viewers and a 2.7 in the adults 18-49 demo, the best for a scripted summer broadcast series in 21 years, to dethrone America’s Got Talent as the summer’s top broadcast show.
“It continued to convince people that summer was a great place for big, bold ideas,” says NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke.
New splashes this summer include Fox’s star-studded mystery Wayward Pines and ABC’s sci-fi thriller The Whispers.
NBC turned back the clock with 1960s detective drama Aquarius. The day after its May 28 debut, the net released all 13 episodes on NBC.com, the NBC app and other video-on-demand platforms—an attempt, according to Salke, to launch the show “more in linewith the ways people are actually watching” and to create buzz around its premiere. “We’re trying to be experimental with how we’re launching things,” she says.
With More Demand, Less Risk
Perhaps even more critical than Under the Dome’s monster Season 1 ratings was CBS’ unique SVOD deal with Amazon. Four days after their linear premieres, Dome episodes are made available on Amazon Instant Video. So even though the show’s second season ratings fell dramatically, and Season 1 of Halle Berry astronaut drama Extant (with the same SVOD deal) posted even lower numbers, the programs are still successes for CBS.
SVOD deals influence decisions to order and renew series, allowing networks to invest in shows—especially for the summer—that don’t necessarily attain enviable numbers. “It opened up thinking as far as how we can pursue big production value at a potential lower rating,” Salke says.
One week after announcing a series order for Zoo, the sci-fi thriller based on the James Patterson novel, last summer, CBS announced a streaming deal with Netflix to launch all 13 episodes immediately following the end of the broadcast run. The hefty coin that the big three SVODs (Amazon, Hulu and Netflix) are spending helps offset the production costs, lowering the live/same-day ratings bar.
Another way networks are driving down costs of scripted summer programming is turning to international coproductions. ABC’s two returning summer scripted series—Mistresses and Rookie Blue—are both international coproductions, while Swedish coproduction Welcome to Sweden earned a second season on NBC despite meager numbers last summer.
Paltry ratings are no longer the kiss of death for those shows because production costs are mitigated. “We’re [trading] cheaper programming that works well at a lower rating,” Kubitz says. “The risk tolerance is much lower.”
Salke notes that some shows are pitched to NBC specifically for summer, with the goal of getting an uninterrupted run and the chance to make “some noise outside of the clutter” of the broadcast season. “You can take some bigger creative swings when out of the spotlight,” she says.
But sometimes you swing and miss—or perhaps, no one is there to witness the hit. Hannibal’s third season on NBC premiered to a series-low rating and had fallen even lower by its third episode on June 18. Although it was arguably the most critically acclaimed show in NBC’s portfolio, Hannibal was cancelled June 22.
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