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The Season of Broadcast Disconnect

With cable's vampires, stage moms and methheads, this could be nets' worst summer yet
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Gone Fishin’

If broadcast’s summer stars are unlikely to appear in lush Vanity Fair photo spreads (the networks tend to save the sexy for the fall, when HUT levels and ad rates are much higher), the nets are making a more concerted effort to hype their warm weather output.

In the run-up to the season premiere of America’s Got Talent, NBC splashed the mugs of Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne and new judge Howard Stern all over Manhattan, with the King of All Media uncharacteristically agreeing to a few high-profile media appearances to prime viewer interest.

Thus far, the new-look AGT is a hit. Through the first nine episodes, the show is averaging 10.9 million viewers and a 3.3 rating in the demo, making it the summer’s most-watched, highest-rated series. Even in head-to-head competition with Game 1 of the National Basketball Association finals on ABC, AGT on June 12 averaged 11.2 million viewers and a 3.0 rating.

Unfortunately, no other summer series is anywhere near those deliveries. Now in its ninth cycle, Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance bowed May 24 to 6.26 million viewers and a 2.4 in adults 18-49, a drop of 27 percent from the year-ago 3.3 rating. And while ABC’s The Bachelorette is on course to deliver its highest ratings in three seasons, the rest of the network’s lineup is wilting in the heat.

One of broadcast’s few summer dramas, Rookie Blue returned to 6.1 million viewers on May 24 with a paltry 1.4 rating, down 13 percent from last year and 26 percent from its June 24, 2010 premiere. Meanwhile, newcomer Duets is averaging a 1.4 in the demo in ABC’s stab at the musical competition genre.

Under entertainment president Paul Lee, ABC is unreservedly taking a 52-week approach to programming. “My job isn’t to launch our entire schedule in one week in the fall,” Lee said earlier this year. “My job is to bring great television and spend the year launching it.” As such, ABC has prepared the largest cache of summer series, lining up no fewer than 10 shows to air between now and the fall.

If CBS has its way, the next series scheduled to debut on ABC will never see the light of day. CBS is suing ABC over its new reality strip The Glass House, arguing that the format is basically a rip-off of its own Big Brother. So determined is CBS to foil the June 18 launch that the network is seeking a temporary restraining order to halt production on the show.

As in the old days, when broadcasters hung out the “Gone Fishin’” sign and blanketed the summer airwaves with repeats, CBS is leaning heavily on previously aired installments of its procedurals and comedies. Since signing off for the 2011-12 season, CBS has introduced just one new series, Dogs in the City. Through its first two episodes, the show is averaging 5.9 million viewers and a 1.1 rating. While those numbers are anemic by broadcast standards, Dogs still managed to beat out nearly everything that aired on cable that same night. (The show was no match for the decisive Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Championship Series, which drew 9.5 million viewers and a 4.1 rating on ESPN.)

For its part, NBC has earmarked just four summer series, although the lighter load has much to do with its upcoming coverage of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Like ABC’s Lee, NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert has embraced a more fluid television programming schedule, bowing four new series in late spring.

Harbert has been outspoken about the outdated September-to-May seasonal span construct that was adopted 50 years ago. (That each new season arrives in the fall is a reflection of automakers’ annual launch schedule.) “It’s time for us to update our ‘report card,’ the way we keep score on the ratings—our seasonal measurement—to reflect that we and our competitors program year round,” Harbert said during NBC’s May upfront presentation. “We’ve never made the adjustment in our reporting. The summer isn’t just repeats anymore. In fact, NBC’s summer is 60 percent original. Cable measures the whole year and they seem to be doing pretty well.”

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