Once contented to hang up the “gone fishing” sign and stockpile their summer schedules with lowest common denominator reality fare, the broadcast TV networks are taking a decidedly different approach this year. As if they’ve finally come to acknowledge that the laissez-faire approach essentially allowed cable to hijack the warm-weather GRPs, the Big Four this summer are programming an unprecedented number of scripted series.
Along with a goulash of burnoffs and hangovers from the just-concluded 2012-13 season, broadcasters are hoping to keep viewers tuned in during the sweaty months with a barrage of big-budget dramas. Among the more ambitious projects are the 13-episode CBS sci-fi strip Under the Dome, ABC’s sudsy Brit reboot Mistresses and the international cop drama Crossing Lines (NBC). Produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and CBS Television Studios and based on Stephen King’s Yellow Pages-sized 2009 novel, Under the Dome is arguably the biggest thing to hit the summertime airwaves since, well, ever.
From the 1,074 pages of source material to the estimated budget of $40 million (CGI doesn’t come cheap), literally everything about Under the Dome is supersized. The trick will be getting viewers to tune into what CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler characterized as “a summer programming event …with outstanding auspices and in-season production values.”
After 30 weeks during which the broadcast nets averaged a 2.3 rating in the 18-49 demo, deliveries slid to a 1.7 in the final weeks of the season—about what the Big Four delivered in the most recent non-Olympics summer. The numbers are even more stark when stacked up against the upstarts; per Nielsen, ad-supported cable now delivers 72 percent of all summer GRPs. (Ad spend also favors cable, but not proportionately so. Per SNL Kagan, cable nets in summer 2012 booked $7.8 billion in inventory versus broadcast’s $6.3 billion.)
If it’s a gamble to launch such a pricey series in the midst of a dry season (as it is, ratings were down 10 percent for the season), buyers are pleased with the efforts being made at CBS and elsewhere. “They had to do something big,” said one national TV buyer. “The reality shows aren’t drawing them in like they used to, and repeats don’t deliver at all. Scripted is the only way to win share back from cable.”
For all that, the cable nets aren’t exactly breaking a sweat. “People have turned to our shows for so long they almost have to be retrained to look for quality stuff on the networks,” said one cable programmer. “I mean, summer broadcast is a show about people falling off of giant red balls.”
All told, 16 scripted broadcast shows are set to air this summer, up from just two a year ago. ABC and NBC account for 13 of these, five of which are brand new.