The Season of Broadcast Disconnect

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

Naturally, broadcasters can’t combat the lull that comes with the onset of warm weather and more hours of sunlight. Most executives will tell you that the Big Five are doing a fair job of delivering those viewers who actually plop down in front of the set. But recent viewing trends suggest the networks aren’t doing enough to stem the tide. Last summer, broadcast fell 6 percent in adults 18-49 as viewers watched an average 7.6 hours of network TV per week. Meanwhile, cable watching improved 3 percent to 17.1 hours.

“From a business perspective, we have to be more proactive,” said one network executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There are scatter dollars to consider, not to mention the fact that we have a narrow window in which to promote our fall season. We’ve all spent a lot of money on our new shows, and if we don’t start promoting them now, we have to shout above all the noise in September.”

By the same token, any increase in summer programming budgets is somewhat undercut by the fact that the repeats have already been paid for. Reality, like talk, is cheap.

Even when the networks have introduced a game changer in the summer, the road to renewal is never entirely free of peril. In the summer of 1989, NBC famously introduced a one-off pilot starring a New York club comedian named Jerry Seinfeld. Released without the benefit of any advance promotion, and on the evening after Independence Day, The Seinfeld Chronicles managed to deliver a 10.9 rating, good enough for a limited renewal in 1990.

While nearly 11 percent of TV households watched the Seinfeld pilot, viewers did not find the show at all sponge-worthy. The pilot was unstintingly faithful to Larry David’s concept of airing “a show about nothing.” Test audiences carped that they weren’t interested in watching two guys do laundry, an unfortunate assessment given that nearly a third of the pilot takes place in a laundromat.

From such humble beginnings came one of the greatest television shows of all time. In its final season on NBC, Seinfeld averaged a mammoth 34.1 million viewers and an 18 rating in the advertiser coveted 18-49 demo.

A nice story, but it’s ancient history.

Since the turn of the century, two of broadcast’s biggest reality franchises were given summer trials. CBS’ Survivor was such a phenomenon that it catapulted the Tiffany Network into first place, where it has remained for the better part of the last 13 years. The inaugural season finale scared up a massive 51.7 million viewers and a 22.8 18-49 rating, and some 125 million watched at least part of Richard Hatch’s victory, according to Nielsen. Two years later, Fox introduced American Idol, which to this day stands as the second priciest buy on the tube behind only NBC’s Sunday Night Football with an average unit cost north of $500,000.

“Would we like to see another huge hit? Of course we would,” said a national TV buyer who asked not to be named. “Think of all the studio money you could send to the next Survivor. At the same time, cable offers a really nice mix … and you can buy time on the shows everyone talks about for a nice price.”