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Nets’ summer heat

Firstrun fare sizzles with bigger auds

“Survivor” may be getting all the media ink, but it’s not this summer’s sole small-screen success story.

Fact is, network TV as a whole has been the biggest winner of the warm-weather season. By taking down their gone fishin’ signs and making modest attempts to offer some semblance of original programming, the nets have been rewarded with bigger audiences — and perhaps even some modest momentum headed into fall.

Compared to year-ago Nielsen figures, viewership of the Big Six webs is up a healthy 9% among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic. Overall TV usage is up 3% — the largest jump in more than three years, according to an analysis of summer ratings by Gotham-based ad-buying company OMD.

Equally encouraging for the webs: Their gain has been cable’s loss. The four largest cabler nets are down 6% versus last year.

And cable’s overall share of the viewing pie this summer is up a scant 1% — a major slowdown from recent years, when the wired webs have experienced jumps of 3 to 5 share points.

“It does prove that if you put something on viewers are interested in watching, they will come — and sometimes, in droves,” said TN Media’s Stacey Lynn Koerner.

As a result, the argument against summer programming — it costs too much to put on new shows when so few viewers are available while repeats of fall programming are free — largely bit the dust this year.

Nets still need to put on repeats to justify ever-increasing program costs, but as ratings for repeats drift downward, the cost-benefit equation has changed.

“As numbers (for repeats) get lower, the cost of replacement programming becomes less, and it becomes more advantageous to produce original programming,” said NBC West Coast topper Scott Sassa. “There’s a greater opportunity to improve your performance.”

While all the webs save for Fox and the WB are up this summer, the shows people are watching in droves have so far been limited to ABC and CBS.

The Eye, of course, has “Survivor” and the less stellar (if still successful) “Big Brother.” Former skein is such a hit, it now ranks as the No. 2 show of the year among adults 18-49, second only to “ER.” That’s a jaw-dropping stat for a show airing at 8 p.m. in the summer on a network that has historically struggled to lure younger auds.

“Survivor’s” strength with younger viewers can be seen in CBS’ overall summer ratings perf. In homes, the net is up a modest 3% over 1999; among adults 18-49, the Eye’s up by 24%.

The Regis wave

Meanwhile, ABC — which reignited the summer programming trend last year with a two-week trial run of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — continues to ride its Regis wave. ABC’s households ratings are up 16% versus summer 1999 — the largest gain of the Big Four.

The bad news for ABC is that “Millionaire” continues to skew older, particularly during the summer. As a result, the net’s up a more modest 10% with adults 18-49 this summer.

But even though the big hits are on ABC and CBS this summer, other webs have reason to be encouraged:

  • A lack of reality doesn’t completely bite for NBC: The Peacock is actually the young-adult ratings leader this summer, winning two-thirds of the weekly Nielsen showdowns since June.

    Having the NBA Playoffs helped a lot, but NBC has also done well with some strong Sunday movie titles and innovative stunts like an all-night “Will & Grace” marathon. “Dateline” also continues to plug holes, while the net has improved its lot by getting rid of weak sitcoms like “Veronica’s Closet.” Three hours of “Law & Order” every week has also been a big boost.

    A drama developed by sister net Pax, “Mysterious Ways,” had a strong debut on NBC but has faded in subsequent airings.

  • The WB has had some early luck with summer tryouts “Young Americans” and “Baby Blues.” Latter skein had a solid premiere, while “Americans” has substantially boosted the Frog’s timeslot average versus “Dawson’s Creek” repeats.

  • UPN’s strategy of keeping its flagship “WWF Smackdown!” in originals all year long has paid off big time. The net is up a whopping 63% in adults 18-49 this summer, with “Smackdown!” last week leading the weblet to its first-ever 8-10 p.m. Thursday win among adults 18-34.

Of course, the dog days of summer have also been filled with plenty of … well, dogs.

While fresh episodes of toon laffer “Family Guys” have done well with young viewers — enough to convince Fox to order 13 more segs for next summer — the net’s other new offerings have flopped.

Fox woes

“Opposite Sex” has done dismally on Mondays, while the gamer “Chance of a Lifetime” was anything but the final answer to Fox’s summer woes. “American High” got excellent reviews and strong teen sampling with last week’s debut, but it faces a tough road opposite CBS’ Wednesday “Big Brother.”

Viewers didn’t seem in the mood for new laughs this summer, either. NBC’s “M.Y.O.B.” lasted just four episodes, while ABC’s long-delayed “Clerks” checked out after two weeks.

Koerner says viewers may actually have higher standards during the summer as they pick what to watch.

“It’s not the fall, when it’s getting colder and darker. Viewers aren’t looking to watch TV,” she said. “You have to separate yourself from the pack.”

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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