Networks Looking At Options For Summer

Between the February sweeps and sifting through fall 2005 pilots, the broadcast networks have yet to set their summer schedules. But they are beginning to strategize about what is becoming as hotly contested a TV season as any during the year.

On tap, naturally, are more nonscripted series, with at least three related to music and music stars. Advertisers have expressed some concern that broadcasters’ continued reliance on nonscripted programming could cause interest in the genre to burn out prematurely. And this summer will also see new scripted programming, although not as much, perhaps, as the networks would like.

Still, Stacey Lynn Koerner, evp and director of global research integration for Interpublic Group’s Initiative, said that because of reality’s cost-effectiveness, and the immediate buzz it can generate for the networks, there were few alternatives to consider.

“Part of the problem is the networks just don’t have enough scripted stuff to fill in the blanks,” said Koerner. “And it’s harder for the networks to get traction with scripted series.”

Reality in the summer is “not foolproof, but all things considered, it’s probably their best option,” said Brad Adgage, svp and director of corporate research for independent Horizon Media.

CBS plans to air Big Brother 6 and Mark Burnett’s The Next Great Rock Star, a search to replace INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who died in 1997. NBC announced summer launches for its socialite-search show I Want to Be a Hilton, the reality sitcom Tommy Lee Goes to College and David E. Kelley’s attorney contest show The Law Firm.

Meanwhile, the WB announced new episodes of the family drama Summerland (a limited second season begins Feb. 28). And UPN is tentatively prepping for summer R U the Girl, with T-Boz and Chili, a search to replace R&B group TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, who died in 2002.

ABC confirmed it would not bring back last summer’s family drama The Days, produced in association with WPP Group’s MindShare. But ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson said the network is partnering with MindShare on several other as-yet-undisclosed projects.

Of course, Fox may have the most riding on summer. Its move last year to a 52-week schedule hinged on a full slate of June launches, including reality show The Casino and scripted series North Shore, The Jury, Method & Red and Quintuplets. But much of that slate failed to win viewers.

At the TV critics tour in Los Angeles last month, Fox entertainment president Gail Berman addressed last summer’s losing strategy, saying, “We knew we were going to take our lumps in doing that.” Although she expressed her belief in viewers’ desire for original summer programming, she acknowledged audience wariness. “They don’t know fully yet that we’re not giving them burn-off theater in the summer,” she said.

Fox executives confirmed further refinement of their summer rollout. “What we’ll try to do differently from last year is blur the line more between the end-of-May sweeps and summer,” said Preston Beckman, evp of strategic program planning at Fox.

To that end, Beckman said, American Dad would launch during the May sweeps and, paired with new episodes of Family Guy, would run past the end of the traditional season. He said the midseason sitcom Life on a Stick could run past May, too. And Beckman added that Fox also would stagger its summer schedule more than last year by introducing shows in both July and August.

NBC has been nearly as aggressive as Fox in terms of summer scheduling. In addition to unscripted launches, NBC Universal TV Group president Jeff Zucker has publicly stated his desire to introduce scripted series into the mix. But the network may have to postpone such ambitious plans. With Medium and Committed already on the air, and with spring launch dates for Law & Order: Trial by Jury and The Office, there is little scripted material left as NBC continues to plug holes in its struggling regular-season schedule.

At last month’s critics tour, NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly said that getting scripted series into NBC’s summer rotation is “still a goal.”