Retreat from reality

Summer auds up but unscripted series hard hit

It was a bummer of a summer for reality show producers.

Warm-weather frame witnessed a string of unscripted stinkers, with one new show after another going down in flames. In some cases — like ABC’s “The One” — the results were disastrous, with shows earning record low Nielsen ratings.

CBS’ “Tuesday Night Book Club” only survived a couple of airings, and ABC’s “One Ocean View” and “Master of Champions” were also yanked. Insiders blame a lack of original ideas for the carnage and say the summer swan dive proves there’s been a sea change.

In all, summer viewing was up, with the Big Four 1% ahead of last year in the key adult demo. Newsmagazines also did well, and audiences showed a hunger for new scripted shows, with summer bows like “Kyle XY” and “The Closer” proving successful.

But on the whole, summer 2006 was dominated by reality fare. And that was tough.

“Over the past few years, it seemed like any reality show you put on was going to get some kind of an audience,” says Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s head of scheduling. “But it’s been increasingly difficult to make reality hits. The genre has come down to earth, and this summer has shown that.”

Fox scheduling supremo Preston Beckman says too many shows were “derivative” of past successes.

“There was nothing original,” he says. “There was no excitement of discovery, of feeling that, ‘Hey, here’s something new.’ All the new reality felt like been there, done that.”

Not helping matters: The sheer volume of original reality programming this summer made it harder for shows to stand out.

“Certainly it was much more competitive in the reality field,” says CBS scheduling senior exec VP Kelly Kahl. “There were weeks (when) there were three or even four reality shows. Competition really jacked up a bit, which may have been part of the reason there were no real game changers popping up anywhere.”

Despite the lack of a mega-hit, from a ratings standpoint the summer wasn’t necessarily a wash. Even though the season included the lowest-rated week in the history of primetime TV (the week of July 4, naturally), enough viewers still tuned in vs. last summer to keep the lights on.

The big four were up 1% from last year in the key adults 18-49 demo (8.5 vs. 8.4), with Fox in first place, and NBC posting the biggest gains (11%).

Fox, NBC and CBS also saw total viewer numbers tick up (especially Fox, which jumped up 16%).

“Look at our numbers. The viewer numbers are up and the demos are right where they were last summer,” says CBS’ Kahl. “It was not a wasted summer by any means. We won every week this summer in viewers — we’re doing all right.”

Even the reality genre has had some success this summer.

NBC freakfest “America’s Got Talent” wasn’t a breakout smash, but it was a solid performer — the only frosh skein that merits such a label.

What’s more, returning reality shows did just fine, frequently dominating Nielsen’s top 10 in young adults. The success of returning unscripted skeins highlights one of the summer’s most important lessons: Patience pays.

Fox took a gamble by bringing back “Hell’s Kitchen” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” a pair of 2005 reality skeins that did just OK in their first years. Both shows added viewers, with “Dance” emerging as the season’s top reality show in adults 18-49.

Beckman admits Fox took a page from the CBS playbook. Eye rewrote the summer rulebook six years ago when it brought back “Big Brother” for a second season, despite a lackluster frosh year. It was rewarded with a summer staple, a skein that still regularly wins its three weekly timeslots.

“You have to allow some of these shows time to become part of your summer schedule rather than start all over again every year,” Beckman says.

CBS followed its own rules by bringing back “Rock Star” for a second go-round. While it didn’t break out, it has done fine.

Ditto NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” which the Peacock removed from cold storage after a nearly two-year hiatus. Skein did well enough to warrant an early pickup for next summer.

Some other lessons the nets learned:

  • The perils of serials. A heavy diet of serialized dramas and a paucity of sitcoms will come back to haunt network execs in the summertime. Repeats are necessary for networks to amortize their costs, but if those repeats don’t perform, you may be in for a long summer.

“It’s always been an issue for us,” says ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader, who notes that earlier hit Alphabet dramas like “NYPD Blue” and “The Practice” also didn’t repeat well. “What we don’t have to fall back on like we used to is comedies. And it’s been that way for everybody.”

  • There’s an audience for scripted fare in the summer. NBC proved that by bringing a solid crowd to the opening of lottery drama “Windfall.”

Skein ultimately didn’t click with viewers and won’t be back. But its early success — not to mention some business for ABC’s run of ABC Family’s “Kyle XY” and strong numbers for cable dramas such as “The Closer” — underscores the need for nets to serve up first-run scripted shows in the summer.

Next summer, look for nets to get serious about Americanized takes on telenovelas. And if all goes according to plan, Fox will premiere some new shows in April or May that will run through early July.

  • Newsmagazines aren’t dead yet. When ABC’s summer reality entries failed, the net turned to special editions of “Primetime” — and attracted a decent sized audience. NBC’s “Dateline” and CBS’ “48 Hours: Mysteries” also had a good summer. And breaking news, such as an arrest in the murder case of JonBenet Ramsey, triggered viewership spikes.

It’s a revalidation for the newsmag genre, which has lost its luster during the regular season. The nets are airing just four hours of newsmags this fall, the lowest count in more than a decade.

“When we put the newsmagazines on at 10, they did very well,” Bader says. “For the 10 p.m. time period next summer, we’ll be discussing more newsmagazines.”

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