The Season of Broadcast Disconnect

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

Perhaps no series is more emblematic of cable’s summer slate than the HBO vampire drama True Blood. A gory bouillabaisse of sex, death and escapism, Alan Ball’s gleefully erratic swamp opera seems to share a strand of DNA with nearly every show on cable.

Overstuffed and overheated, fleshy and flashy, True Blood embodies all the things that makes cable appointment viewing during the sultry months. Crammed with more antiheroes than FX’s Sons of Anarchy, Blood can be as brooding and self-reflexive as Breaking Bad. And the ghoulishness isn’t limited to drama—the moral turpitude of Blood’s Bon Temps has infected reality series like A&E’s Storage Wars, Lifetime’s Dance Moms and truTV’s Southern-fried repo farce Lizard Lick Towing.

If True Blood is a metonym for cable’s summer slate, broadcast’s goofy roster of empty-calorie fare puts one in mind of Count Chocula. It’s a sugary slurry of competition series and hook-up shows studded with the occasional marshmallowy nugget of drama. The networks’ summer offerings aren’t meant to serve as a meal; rather, they exist to sort of tide viewers over until it’s time for the autumn repast.

Given cable’s lowly beginnings as a warehouse of crummy old movies and repeats of creaky detective series, the sheer amount of original content now available is stupefying. AMC’s Breaking Bad is arguably the finest TV show since David Simon typed the “–30–” at the bottom of the final script of The Wire; more so than the (deservedly) fawned-over Mad Men, Vince Gilligan’s unsparing portrait of dissolution offers the sort of high-grade drama once reserved for the likes of HBO. Though sharing dimensions of a standard sitcom, comedian Louis C.K.’s idiosyncratic FX series is almost impossible to classify. Set to return for Season 3 on June 28, his autobiographical comedy Louie is a profoundly human meditation on what it’s like to be a sentient being in post-everything America.

Of course, neither series is everyone’s cup of chamomile. Breaking Bad rarely gets within shooting distance of the 2 million viewer mark and Louie is lucky to deliver half that. If either show premiered on a broadcast network, they’d be canceled during the first commercial break.

Which isn’t to say that cable doesn’t have its share of reach vehicles. USA Network now boasts more popular original dramas than any other net. Since assuming responsibility for USA in May 2004, Bonnie Hammer is pitching a near-perfect game; except for the 2008 series The Starter Wife, every drama introduced during her tenure has been renewed for at least a second season. Last summer, USA accounted for five of cable’s most-watched series, ensuring its sixth straight seasonal sweep of the three primary ratings categories: total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

That said, only a handful of cable series can outdeliver the average broadcast audience. On Wednesday, June 13, the series premiere of TNT’s Dallas whipped up 6.9 million viewers, making it the night’s second most-watched program on television. Only Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance almost bested J.R. Ewing, drawing 6.7 million viewers in the 8-10 p.m. slot. Trouble is, the Dallas audience was a little long in the tooth. The two-hour opener averaged a 1.5 in the 18-49 demo, a rating that was eclipsed by Fox’s competition series (2.5).

“You have to hand it to cable—they may not get very big numbers, but they’re all anyone wants to talk about,” says one network executive, who asked not to be named. “Pro wrestling and Pawn Stars deliver the ratings, but that gets lost in all the hype. I’ll say this: the amount of press some of these shows gets tells you these guys are fantastic marketers.”

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.”

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.”