The broadcast networks have made a concerted push to create the appearance that they’re serious about original summer programming. Thus far, though, the post-Memorial Day period still seems to be a time, barring a few notable exceptions, for trotting out programs ordered less on merit than on deal points.
Granted, we’ve come a long way since what used to be derisively dubbed Amortization Theater, when the major networks would follow the May sweeps by burning off pilots and canceled series as “original programming,” mostly so they could wring a few extra bucks from their castaways.
That said, the results of the push to incorporate scripted series into the summer diet, after having long turned to unscripted TV as a cheap rerun alternative, remain a decidedly mixed bag, with several shows quickly betraying their international origins — usually just a polite way of saying the network acquired them on the cheap.
While this is no doubt a boon to Canadian producers and broadcasters — as well as European nations , such as France, with NBC’s “Taxi Brooklyn” — these pickups hardly reflect the spirit of using the period to experiment and potentially cultivate new hits. If “keeping the lights on” and not hanging out a “Gone fishin’ ” sign represent familiar network-speak off-season catchphrases, they also seem to encompass the extent of programmers’ ambitions.
Moreover, this summer, despite the occasional surprise, a la NBC’s comedy “Welcome to Sweden,” the quality of shows being introduced has thus far been especially grim. The coming fall season isn’t exactly littered with gems either, based on first impressions, but many of these warm-weather programs have a retro feel — see NBC’s medical drama “The Night Shift” (which has done well enough to earn a renewal) or Canadian import “Working the Engels” — as if they were developed when Bill, not Hillary, was the Clinton presidential contender.
While the networks can be forgiven for exercising fiscal prudence, this latest onslaught follows CBS’ breakout success last summer with “Under the Dome,” which highlighted what was possible during these months. Perhaps not surprisingly, that network also gambled on one of the few shows that genuinely appears to have been created with a sense of purpose: the Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi drama “Extant,” starring Halle Berry.
Indeed, even the summer’s reality shows convey a warmed-over sensation, from ABC’s latest music-competition gimmick “Rising Star” (which has proven more risible than rising) to Fox’s quickly yanked “I Wanna Marry Harry,” a throwback to “Joe Millionaire” with a royal twist that proved not so princely.
The networks have certainly come closer to a year-round programming model than anyone anticipated when they first began discussing the concept, which underwent repeated fits and starts — including plenty of attempts to justify the rationale for airing reruns, such as NBC’s much-lampooned “It’s New to You” campaign.
The volume of fresh cable fare and the need to maintain tune-in circulation, if only for promotional purposes, means such retrenchment is no longer a logical option. But if networks continue to approach the summer as a time to offer the equivalent of leftovers and garage-sale acquisitions, they risk turning the already formidable odds against success into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What seems clear is that networks don’t have to rethink the kind of programs they schedule — or discern how to tailor them to the calendar — so much as they need to put the same effort into off-season shows that they do in enthusiastically presenting fresh fare to advertisers in the spring.
Although that will inevitably add to everyone’s workload, such are the vagaries of today’s endlessly hungry media cycle. Or, put another way, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the summer.