Why Can’t The Networks Launch A Successful New Summer Show?



Monday, ABC announced that it was ordering a second season of its new summer series ‘Rookie Blue.’  The show is a huge hit — in Canada, where its garnered record ratings for the Global Network, and, according to the press release, “is the most successful original Canadian drama ever commissioned by Canwest.”  The Canadian co-production about a group of newbie police officers is the U.S’s highest rated new network series this summer, but that is not saying much. Its most recent episode watched by 6.4 million total viewers and earned a less than impressive 1.6/5 rating among the all important Adults 18-49, representing approximately.  Those would be cancellation numbers during the regular season.  In contrast, Monday night TNT’s new series ‘Rizzoli and Isles‘ had basic cable’s biggest premiere ever, with 7.5 million total viewers, 2,079,000  were Adults 18-49.  It is just the latest success story in what has been a record breaking summer for cable.  Sunday night A&E’s new Florida-set procedural ‘The Glades‘ had the network’s best ever premiere.  ABC Family has two new hit teen series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and ‘Huge’ which have also broken records for the network.

This was supposed to be the summer that the networks took back television.  No more ceding June, July, and August to cable.  The big four broadcast channels ambitiously launched a slew of new scripted and reality series, created by some of the entertainment industry’s most successful showrunners. (‘Burn Notice’s‘ Matt Nix, created Fox’s ‘The Good Guys‘ and Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for writing ‘The Usual Suspects’ is behind NBC’s ‘Persons Unknown.’) Virtually everything has flopped, big time, with some shows averaging below 1.0 in the all important Adults 18-49 demographic.  Returning network reality shows including ‘The Bachelorette‘ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance‘ are performing well.   Obviously, viewers are watching television. They are watching new cable series.  They are watching the broadcast networks. They just are not watching new broadcast shows.  What the heck is going on?

According to a television research executive source who works for a major studio, there are several possible explanations:

1. The Shows Themselves Are Not That Great. “Its both a product issue and a marketing/promotion issue. Broadcast nets and Madison Ave have followed the classic fall launch pattern, especially with scripted. Hence, generally speaking the best broadcast nets scripted series don’t launch in the summer, but within the September-May season. While generally the opposite is true for cable, which started using the network summer repeats as a perfect time to launch their best and brightest.”  In other words, the new cable series are better than the new broadcast series and viewers are savvy enough to figure that out.

While I would agree that a lot of the new cable series are terrific, with ‘Huge‘ being my favorite, in my opinion the quality of the network shows is on par with much of the regular season.  None of the new shows are as good as ‘The Good Wife‘ or ‘Glee,‘ but they are better than ‘The Forgotten‘ or ‘Accidentally on Purpose.’   Several of my friends are hooked on NBC’s ‘Persons Unknown.’  ABC’s ‘Scoundrels‘ and ‘The Gates‘ are fun hours.  In fact, most of the summer shows have more original, interesting premises than the sea of police and medical procedurals that dominate the network schedules.

2. When People Think Networks, They Think Reality. The research exec points out, “The broadcast nets have had more success with reality over the summer which tends to be cheaper.”    This is true.  ‘Big Brother‘ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance‘ have long been summer powerhouses. But this summer new unscripted series are struggling as well.  ABC’s new game show ‘Downfall‘ only retained about half of the audience of its similar lead-in the returning ‘Wipeout.’  Newness seems to be the problem.

3. Networks Did Not Promote Their New Series. The anonymous executive thinks cable shows get better promotion. “From the marketing stand point, cable has fewer originals to promote and can really blast their on-air with promos for only a couple or at the most a handful of new originals.”  This is indisputably true.  Cable networks tend to launch one new series at a time, devoting all of their efforts to it.  USA is currently putting all of its efforts behind ‘Covert Affairs,’ which has the benefit, unlike the new network summer series, of having new episodes of an established scripted hit  – ‘White Collar‘ – as a lead-in.  Their marketing departments tend to be more creative – or at least make more of an effort.  It was difficult to miss seeing eye catching print and outdoor ads of Nikki Blonsky in a swimsuit for ‘Huge.’  In contrast, there was seemingly no marketing whatsoever for ‘Persons Unknown.’

4. The Summer Network Shows Are Too Original For Their Own Good. The research guru points out, “ABCs ‘Rookie Blue‘ opened well [and was renewed], so it’s not all gray and gloom.”   ‘Rookie Blue’ has two things going for it that the other summer series don’t: a high-performing lead-in  – ‘Wipeout’ – and the fact that it is the only traditional procedural in the crop of new series.  The majority of popular network series are procedurals.  Viewers have come to think of cable as the place to go for more challenging, original fare. They come to the networks to see a crime get solved in an hour.  ‘Rookie Blue’ fulfills that need.  Unless the networks do a major promotional push, as they are already starting to do for some non-procedural fall shows like ABC’s ‘My Generation‘ and NBC’s ‘The Event,‘ nobody pays attention to them.  Most of the new hit cable series — with the exception of ABC Family’s teen dramas — are also crime procedurals.  This summer, viewers seem to want to see perps get apprehended to the exclusion of all else.

5. Cable Shows Need Fewer Viewers To Be Considered A Hit. Comparing network and cable shows is a bit unfair.  Monday night’s ‘Huge’ earned an 0.7 in Adults 18-49.  The last original episode of flop ‘The Gates’  did a 1.0 in the demo. Though the biggest cable series, including TNT and USA’s dramas do rival broadcast shows, for most basic cable channels, success is

6. Les Moonves Has Made A Deal With The Devil. CBS has not launched any new scripted programs this summer.  Its repeats are outperforming most of the new series. Everything that CBS does always works.  Always. The network is even going to find a way to make Alex O’Loughlin happen with the new ‘Hawaii 5-0‘. Perhaps CBS President Les Moonves has used his supernatural powers to curse the other networks attempts at original programming.  Or, more likely, he used his keen instincts to determine that viewers were not going to tune into new series on networks this summer because they are creatures of habit and it will take years for them to accept that there are anything but reruns on the networks when school is out.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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