Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

TV regulars: Summer reruns, fall debuts has changed
No doubt there’s a lot of cash still to be squeezed from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Yet executives at ABC cannot help but be a little nervous at how quickly its across-all-demos ratings rocket has grayed. In its first two weeks, the aptly named Survivor, CBS’ summertime Darwin-on-the-beach reality show, has made last summer’s phenomenon look like, well, a program on CBS. How sweet it must be for the 60 Minutes network, which for so many years has sold its undesirable older audience to advertisers at cut rates, to lure young demos from the colossus of prime time.
Coming in July is Big Brother, a more existential challenge in which 10 strangers are confined to a house for 100 days under the camera’s eye to test Sartre’s proposition that hell is other people.
The show was a magnet for young adult eyeballs in the Netherlands, where it originated, ditto in Germany, and it’s likely to duplicate the feat here. Between the two, Survivor and Big Brother have generated more anticipation than the entire fall network schedule put together.
The emergence of summer as the hot spot of the programming year is good news for network television and bad news for the American obesity epidemic. For decades the conventional wisdom held that people were too busy enjoying the long evenings outdoors to sit in front of the TV–though it’s just as likely that fewer turned on the set because there was nothing to watch.
It took cable programmers with decimal-sized ratings and nothing to lose to challenge this orthodoxy in the ’80s. Fox in its early years also used the summer as its premiere season with considerable success.
As the interlopers hoped, repeat-weary audiences began to wander away from the nets in the ’90s, and when fall came and the new season began, some never came back.
Then, suddenly last summer, the hot-weather season was transformed into the proving ground on which the left-for-dead networks display their still powerful mass-audience muscle.
Ironically, it is summer’s lingering reputation as the season for throwing out the programming garbage that opened the door to such outrƒ concepts as Millionaire and Survivor in the first place. Hard to believe but this time last year, game shows were considered too cheesy for prime time.
That’s why in its first American incarnation, Millionaire was a limited-engagement summer doldrums stunt. After CBS fought off ABC and other suitors to nab Big Brother rights, CBS president Les Moonves noted, “the casual Fridays” ethos of the summer made it the perfect setting for programming that lacks the gravitas of regular season prime time.
Compared to other programming ploys of summer, the sitcom takes on the dignity of the sonnet.
The traditional fall premiere season, meanwhile, is shaping up as the worst time to debut a new show. When Malcolm in the Middle emerged in the middle of the year as the only bona fide hit of the season, industry executives gushed that Fox programmers were geniuses for not wasting this gem on the fall.
So what happens to the poor producer whose new show is being thrown against the wall in the sacrificial ritual known as “premiere week” in the usually vain hope that it will stick?
Speaking of fall, the Olympics will play havoc with the schedule; the football season will be half over by the time the “new fall shows” reach the air on NBC.
But for those looking ahead to the next who-wants-to-be-a-survivor summertime coup, the
window of possibility is rapidly closing. First, there is the me-tooism endemic in network television, which holds that if audiences like one or two reality shows, they will like 10 of them even more.
Today’s “fresh concept” is tomorrow’s over-used ploy. Moreover, there is a supply to meet the demand: European TV, suddenly the creative capital of global television, is crawling with these shows.
Then there is the necessary pre-condition for making a big splash when there’s nothing else on to watch. As the nets begin pouring serious bucks into summer programming, the hot months will host a score of new shows amid a regular diet of repeats–which sounds a lot like the regular season.
The wonder is that it took so long. In our 24/7 world, when burgeoning technologies promise to stuff our every waking moment with information and entertainment, the notion that network TV can take the summer off is hopelessly archaic. The sun never sets on must-see TV.