Networks do summer-saults

Viewers respond to original programs on webs

When they weren’t rushing to the multiplex, audiences did something surprising this summer: They actually watched network television.

It helped that webheads paid attention to the frame between Memorial Day and Labor Day, attacking the warm weather months with an aggressiveness usually reserved for the regular season.

Execs said last spring they’d fill the summer with full slates of original reality series and specials — and for the most part, they lived up to those promises.

Viewers responded, resulting in a string of summer successes spread among several networks.

The lone exception: ABC, whose Nielsen losing streak largely continued, despite a sizable offering of firstrun fare.

“The audience is clearly telling us they just don’t want repeats in the summer anymore,” says NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker.

There was, of course, the now-standard summer phenom: Fox’s “American Idol” followed in the footsteps of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (1999), “Survivor” (2000) and “Fear Factor” (2001) to become the show of the summer.

In addition to pulling huge Nielsen numbers, “Idol” became a media storm unto itself, generating countless magazine covers, newspaper articles and morning-show conversations.

But unlike past years, viewers didn’t focus their all on one show alone.

NBC struck gold with a trio of reality hits: the gonzo quizzer “Dog Eat Dog,” the dating skein “Meet My Folks” and the Dick Wolf-produced nonfiction drama “Crime & Punishment.”

Over at CBS, meanwhile, the Eye’s third installment of “Big Brother” is shaping up to be the most successful edition of the skein yet. And, as if “Idol” weren’t enough, Fox found success with the fast-paced variety skein “30 Seconds to Fame.”

In addition to proving that viewers will flock to fresh fare during the summer, the Big Four’s summer successes also put to rest rumors that the reality craze is waning.

“Last year, everybody was worried that it had run its course,” says Mike Darnell, the Fox reality guru who brought “Idol” to the U.S. from the U.K. “But it’s clear now that there’s a large group of viewers who find this to be just another form of television.”

Indeed, summer is shaping up to be a valuable lab for networks looking for the next reality hit.

With the stakes so much lower in the off-season, execs feel it’s OK to try out edgier formats and riskier concepts. If something doesn’t work, it’s easy to just slip on a repeat.

“I think summer is clearly a great time for unscripted television,” says NBC exec VP of alternative/longform Jeff Gaspin. “School’s out, you’ve got college kids at home, and you can really target the 18-to-34-year-old audience.”

Gaspin and Zucker actually talk of two different Peacocks: the regular-season web known for classy fare like “The West Wing” and the summer-vacation net dominated by lower-brow skeins such as “Dog Eat Dog.”

“We have a slightly different identity in the summer,” Zucker says. “It’s not something we run away from. HBO’s highest-rated show is ‘G-String Divas’ but ‘The Sopranos’ gets all the attention.”

And while original programming popped this summer, the Big Four still aired plenty of repeats. Many of those reruns tanked — “The lows just keep getting lower,” one exec says — but plenty of shows did pretty well in third or fourth runs.

Repeats of CBS’ “CSI” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” were among the 10 most-watched shows this summer among adults 18-49, beating out a bunch of first-run series. NBC also did well with encores of “Friends” and “Law & Order.”

“Even though people are looking for original programming, the numbers for ‘Raymond’ and ‘CSI’ show that people want to see favorite shows again,” says CBS scheduling czar Kelly Kahl.

And while “Big Brother 3” is certainly miles apart from, say, “Judging Amy,” Kahl doesn’t think nets should be aiming for split personalities.

“We like our network, and we like it year ’round,” he says. “And clearly, a lot of viewers agree.”

So what’s in store for next summer?

Not surprisingly, summer hits such as “Idol” and “Dog” will return during the regular season, possibly making them unavailable for fall.

Both NBC and Fox say they’re interested in experimenting with original scripted series next summer, hoping to emulate the success cable has had with skeins such as “Sex and the City” and “Monk.”

One thing is certain: Hanging out the “Gone fishin’ ” sign is no longer an option.

“You have to look at this as a game of year-’round programming,” says Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman. “Next year, we better have the same vibrant programming as we did this summer. It’s our obligation to give viewers original programming all year.”

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