Webs wilt in heat

Summer ratings suffer double-digit drop

Forget sheep eyeballs: For network programmers, this summer’s real fear factor came in the form of disappearing viewers.

Most of the Big Six webs experienced double digit ratings declines vs. their summer 2000 averages. Repeats of hit dramas such as “ER” and “Ally McBeal” drew record low numbers.

Even this summer’s one true success story — NBC’s gross-out reality skein “Fear Factor” — had to settle for an audience roughly half the size of past summer smashes such as “Survivor” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“There was nothing compelling to draw viewers to television this summer,” admitted CBS exec VP David Poltrack. He said that past phenoms like “Survivor” did more than boost individual timeslots.

“Those shows affected everything around them,” he said. “They helped all of television.”

It’s not as if programmers have ever expected ratings miracles during warm weather months.

Summer has always been TV’s off-season, filled with repeats, newsmags and programming experiments gone wrong. And through much of the 1980s and ’90s, net execs came to accept a certain amount of aud erosion as viewers sampled the increasingly appealing summer fare being served up on cable.

Everything changed

Then came Regis.

Two summers ago, ABC quietly tried out a two-week experiment called “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The fast-paced quizzer, hosted by Regis Philbin, was an instant smash that generated November sweeps-level Nielsens in the dog days of August.

The old arguments against summer programming went out the window: You could score big ratings in the summer, and you didn’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.

Inspired by ABC’s success, CBS followed suit in 2000 with “Survivor,” another inexpensive nonfiction program — and an even bigger hit.

Logic would dictate that programmers would have used summer 2001 to try out a whole host of new quizzers, reality programs and maybe even a few low-budget scripted series.

And indeed, there were a few attempts to put some sizzle in this summer — almost all of the unscripted variety.

In addition to “Fear Factor,” NBC had luck with original episodes of “Weakest Link” and the hidden-cam spectacle “Spy TV.” As a result, the Peacock won all but one week of the summer in adults 18-49.

CBS brought back “Big Brother” for a second season, and while not a smash, the skein showed ratings growth throughout the summer and is now regularly winning its timeslots with young viewers.

Summer struggles

Late in the summer, ABC also rolled out a Wayne Brady-hosted sketch comedy show that’s been getting decent sampling — enough to merit a six-episode midseason order. Fox’s attempt to marry fact and fiction, “Murder in Smalltown X,” fell flat.

A few scripted series got a shot as well: ABC’s “The Beast,” NBC’s “Go Fish,” the WB’s “Dead Last.” All flopped.

For the most part, however, the Big Four decided to revert to old habits and hang out a “Gone Fishin’ ” sign — and viewers responded by tuning out in droves.

Webheads insist it wasn’t a case of collective amnesia but a number of other factors that resulted in such a half-hearted effort at summer programming this year:

Strike prep sidetracked summer planning.

Nine months ago, almost all top-level TV execs expected a walkout by writers, actors or both. Time and money that might have been invested in summer strategies instead went toward preparing for a fall with no scripted shows.

When the strike threat disappeared, nets were left scrambling to come up with a plan for summer. Much of the original strikeproof programming was deemed too expensive to air in the summer.

Reality is serious

Reality has grown up. Once viewed as alternative programming, nonfiction skeins are now an established TV genre — more than just ready for primetime, they’re now among some webs’ biggest weapons.

CBS, for example, originally planned to follow up on last summer’s success by launching round-the-world competish “The Amazing Race” in June. But when Eye execs started seeing rough footage of the skein, they quickly realized “Race” was too good to waste in the summer (particularly since, at the time, a strike was still a possibility). It premieres today as the kickoff to CBS’ fall campaign.

Similarly, Fox saved one of its hotter reality ideas — a floating “Temptation Island”-like series called “Love Cruise” — for early fall instead of airing it in the summer, as once planned. Net needed a buzzworthy, limited-run skein to help keep the lights on in the weeks leading up to baseball playoff coverage.

Once is enough when it comes to dramas.

Repeats have long been a key part of the network TV business model, allowing webs to sell ad time on shows that have already been paid for. It’s one reason why nets shy away from high-cost scripted series in the summer.

Dramas don’t do it

Now, however, “Dramas are not repeating well, especially serialized dramas,” said Fox scheduling czar Preston Beckman. “That’s an issue.”

Making matters is worse is that, with sitcoms in a slump, networks have more dramas on their skeds than they’ve had in years. Networks with aging hits — “ER,” “Ally,” “X-Files,” “NYPD Blue” — are hit hardest, since those shows cost too much not to repeat.

Nets are already demanding producers come up with fewer serialized hours and more dramas that are self-contained from week-to-week, such as “CSI” and “Law & Order.” Some execs also believe it may eventually make sense to farm out drama repeats to sister cablers.

Despite this summer’s ratings bummer, network execs say they’re still committed to finding a way to make TV’s off-season something other than a graveyard.

“The competitive environment has changed so much with the proliferation of cable. We’re going to have to pay more attention to the summer,” declared NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker, who said he’s already plotting the Peacock’s summer 2002 sked.

Reality skeins will continue to play a major part in the webs’ summer plans, mainly because they are less expensive to produce.

“But we really need to look beyond reality to other options and forms of programming that might add an element of freshness to the summer mix,” said the Eye’s Poltrack. The challenge, of course, is finding a cost-effective way of doing such programs.

“We’re going to have to find some creative financing to make it work,” Zucker said.

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