Seasonal slump hits new lows as auds tune out Big Six

It’s been a bummer of a summer for webheads.

Most of the dozen-plus reality skeins launched by broadcasters since Memorial Day have flat-out flopped. Original dramas like Fox’s “The Inside” and ABC’s “Empire” were ignored.

And even repeatable warhorses like the “Law & Order” and “CSI” skeins — while still valuable — are showing signs of age.

Bottom line? With three weeks left to go, the broadcast nets are down a collective 10% among adults 18-49 vs. last summer — and 15% in viewers 18-34. ABC is the only net up over last year, while Fox is flat; other four nets are down sharply.

This summer’s slump is particularly disappointing after a regular season in which the Big Six managed to stem the tide of erosion with a bevy of buzzmaking skeins.

So what happened?

“There was too much reality, and most of it sucked,” says one web wiseguy who’s had his own share of ratings disappointments this summer. Exec adds that much of what the nets programmed “felt like burnoff. It seemed like it was just sitting around rather than made for summer.”

Indeed, most of the half-dozen reality skeins launched by NBC since June had been languishing on Peacock shelves for months. In the case of “Average Joe: The Joes Strike Back,” production had been completed nearly a year ago.

Even shows designed for summer — like CBS’ “The Cut” and Fox’s “Princes of Malibu” — felt like carbon copies of previous reality skeins. Viewers responded with a yawn.

Eye had high hopes for Mark Burnett’s “Rock Star,” but while the show was visually stunning and featured a stellar cast, it still suffered in comparison to “American Idol.”

“A couple years ago, just about any reality show you launched in the summer could at least improve the time period if not move toward the top of the ratings,” says NBC scheduling czar Mitch Metcalf. “That’s over.”

Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman concludes, “People are more discriminating.”

Genre’s hardly toast, however.

ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” was the most-watched summer series on any network since “Survivor” changed the rules of the game back in 2000. “Hell’s Kitchen” was a solid hit for Fox, while ABC also had some success with “Brat Camp.”

Even NBC’s “Tommy Lee Goes to College” posted encouraging numbers with last week’s bow, while Fox is still hopeful about “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“If it had a distinctive hook or a bigger-than-life character to it, people responded,” Metcalf says.

Reality isn’t the only problem facing broadcasters, however.

In what could be a sign of things to come, ratings for procedurals like “Law & Order” suffered some serious erosion this summer.

Last summer, NBC’s “L&O: SVU” held on to 66% of its in-season average for original episodes. This year, skein retained just 48% of its 2004-05 average.

CBS’ Thursday edition of “CSI” also dipped, holding onto 42% of its in-season average vs. 48% last summer.

Nobody’s sounding the alarm just yet, in part because procedurals remain potent even at reduced levels.

After all, “CSI” Thursday repeats rank as the No. 2 show of the summer in young adults. Fox also has to be happy with how well “House” has held up over the summer, even without an “American Idol” lead-in.

The “CSI” and “L&O” franchises are still doing far better than repeats of serialized smashes like “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.” Latter two skeins have barely registered in repeats, though webheads say rerunning the skeins exposes them to new viewers.

Still, the problem could get worse down the road when the slew of serialized skeins in the pipeline hit summer airwaves.

Another worry for webheads this summer has been the poor performance of scripted dramas.

Fox put some major marketing muscle behind crime drama “The Inside,” but viewers didn’t even show up for the premiere. ABC’s big budget “Empire” also fared poorly, while the WB’s “Summerland” stunk in its sophomore summer season.

Even cable hasn’t been immune to the summer malaise. While TNT’s “The Closer” has done nicely, there’s been no breakout smash a la “Nip/Tuck” or “Monk.” 

Programmers haven’t given up on the idea of firstrun scripted fare during warm weather months, however. They note, for example, that Fox comedies “Family Guy” and “American Dad” did very well with originals this summer.

“If a show like ‘Desperate Housewives’ was put on in the summer, I bet it would work,” says ABC exec veep Jeff Bader. “It all depends on what kinds of shows people try.”

Fox’s Beckman thinks networks should consider informally extending the regular season — starting some shows in April and running episodes through July, for example. Fox announced “Prison Break” as a fall show but decided to give it a late summer launch — a strategy that worked for “The OC” two years ago.

“If you start a show in the summer but announce it as part of your fall schedule, it’s not seen as burnoff theater,” he says.

Big question, of course, is just how much summer ratings matter anyway.

While studios derive their big bucks from summer B.O., network TV is all about the fall. Advertisers simply don’t pay as much for ad time in summer, which is one reason nets have always been a bit ambivalent about the season.

Networks do like to keep the lights on between June and September, if only to ensure there’s an audience to see promotions for new fall skeins. According to Bader, however, low summer primetime ratings do not disaster spell.

Indeed, ABC had a terrible summer last year but had no problem turning “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” into instant hits.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be the strength of the shows that determines whether they succeed,” Bader says.

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