Stronger, not simply more, scripted shows might help
The season finale of Fox’s “Glee” on June 8 will mark a sighting almost as rare as Bigfoot: A successful scripted broadcast series rearing its head with an original episode between Memorial Day and Labor Day.Yes, the major networks have made good on their pledge to offer more fresh programming year-round, recognizing that audiences with a multitude of options will no longer reliably show up when fed three months of reruns. Despite the lingering presence of Fox’s musical hit, however — primarily brought about by the show’s bifurcated first season — the summers have almost uniformly consisted of reality TV. Meanwhile, cable has loaded up many of its most popular and prestigious offerings — including HBO’s “True Blood,” and AMC’s Emmy stalwart “Mad Men” — in what initially amounted to a hit-’em-where-they-ain’t strategy to capitalize on broadcasters’ post-May-sweeps siesta. Mindful that man (and woman) cannot live on “Wipeout” and “America’s Got Talent” alone, the networks have taken steps to provide a more varied lineup when the weather heats up. But even that has felt mostly like half-measures, with a heavy reliance on Canadian imports and programs produced on the cheap, based on network standards. Ultimately, if broadcasters are truly serious about summer, they’re going to have to devote significant scripted resources to it or — even more dramatically — relocate originals of one or two existing hits into that window as a calling card/launching pad. A third way would be to emulate and build upon the “Glee” spillover, by scheduling more series in the spring and letting them play well into the summer. CBS, not surprisingly, has the easitask in keeping the lights on during summer. Not only do its crime procedurals repeat better than most scripted fare, but the network occupies three original hours with “Big Brother.” Others have fumbled along putting on product that appears driven more by deal points (either Canadian origination or international financing) than the likelihood of break-out ratings. In the process, they have unleashed a few interesting concepts — ABC’s space soap “Defying Gravity,” left in scheduling limbo, comes to mind — but nothing that has really caught on. Undaunted, ABC will roll out a trio of new hours in June. Fox, meanwhile, gambled with a May preview of “The Good Guys” — a light-hearted cop drama in the USA network mode — though ratings were at best tepid. The network is nevertheless forging ahead with a summer run starting June 7 alongside “Lie to Me” and, in a move that might ultimately be written in pencil, gave the new program a slot on its fall roster. Although few cable programs attract an audience approaching even mid-range network hits, their ability to gain traction in summer has at least partially undermined many concerns the networks historically harbored about these months. Perhaps foremost, tune-in for series like “True Blood” and “Burn Notice” demonstrates that despite reduced HUT (or homes using TV) levels, there’s a substantial crowd looking for entertainment throughout the year. Granted, “Mad Men” delivers only a couple of million viewers, but it’s further proof there’s at least some audience that doesn’t automatically equate summer with blue skies and bikinis — a popular stereotype among ghosts of programming past. Finally, there’s the ironic freedom that comes with audience erosion: In the meatiest of times, networks have slipped to the point where drawing 2.5% of adults age 18-49 can qualify a show as a keeper, lowering the bar of expectations. While the major nets have plenty of scripted offerings for fall — part of a cute little shell game they play with advertisers, which usually involves replacing the inevitable discards with cheaper reality — this summer could be crucial in determining whether they keep seeking to skate by with filler like ABC’s “Rookie Blue,” a Canadian cop drama every bit as generic as its title sounds. Another parade of canceled tryouts, and broadcasters might have little choice but to either attack summer with greater vigor or quit throwing good money after bad and rethink a half-assed strategy. Because until now, anyway, what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked. As a consequence, the networks’ scripted summers won’t have reason to be genuinely gleeful until “Glee,” or something like it, doesn’t just make a fleeting visit but actually takes up residence for awhile.