Cable success inspires networks

More scripted dramas set for this summer

As it time for the broadcast networks to retire the “Gone Fishing” sign when it comes to scripted summer programming?

For years — decades, really — the nets treated the summer as an afterthought at best, a dumping ground at worst. The hot season was the place for repeats or for burning off episodes of series that weren’t good enough to survive on the regular schedule.

But while the broadcasters focused on gameshows, dating shows and hidden-camera shows, cable took advantage of the growing appetite for year-round programming and had big success with network-style scripted series like “The Closer.”

And now some network executives feel like it’s time to reclaim their scripted birthright.

At the NBC upfront, network co-chairman Ben Silverman introduced a pair of scripted series (the horror anthology “Fear Itself” and the paranormal drama “The Listener”) set to debut over the next two summers, and spoke passionately about his desire to find more original comedies and dramas that can air outside of the regular season.

Silverman noted that he plans to slot each show Thursdays at 10.

“Part of it is that we have so many movie studio partners who use our broadcast channel as a marketing partner. They have movies all summer long and don’t have a lot of scripted programs to advertise in during those months. I think we may see more of it as we look to do original programming year-round.

“I don’t think someone is expecting a broadcast channel to have scripted shows in the summer,” he adds, “but obviously the cable networks have done very well with scripted programming in the summer. If it’s compelling and they enjoy it, I think people will watch it.”

CBS, meanwhile, has a pair of scripted dramas set to launch after Nielsen closes its books on the 2007-08 season: “Swingtown,” a period piece about the sexual revolution in a Chicago suburb, and “Flashpoint,” about an elite urban police unit.

“Swingtown” was originally set to air during the season, but the WGA strike disrupted production, and CBS executives wanted to be able to air all 13 episodes in a row. So now it will air Thursdays at 10, beginning June 5.

“We’re putting it in one of our highest-profile time periods,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS’ senior executive VP of primetime. “Cable has done a nice job of recruiting viewers over the summer. I think it’s time for us to say, ‘Enough. We have great shows, too.'”

Not every network is as ready to move away from the reality-for-summer and scripted-for-fall paradigm, however.

In recent years, Fox has tried to limit its scripted summer scheduling to the weeks immediately before or after the end of the broadcast season.

“I’ve always believed,” says Preston Beckman, Fox’s exec VP of strategic program planning and research, “and I think ‘The OC’ is a perfect example of it, the way to put on original scripted programming in the summer is to either make it part of your fall schedule and start it early, or to start some scripted shows in April and extend them into June or July. I believe personally that that might have a greater payoff than announcing or trying to put on a scripted show in the summer, as a summer show.”

Before the strike, Beckman and his Fox colleagues were seriously discussing the idea of letting both “24” and “Prison Break” extend their runs past May.

Beckman is aware of the success of shows such as “The Closer,” but “I find it hard to talk about cable success in the summer in some way on the same level as (broadcast) network success. Virtually every show that a cable network has launched in the summer and called a success would be seen as a failure on a broadcast network.

“It’s a different game, and I really find it hard to comment on it or discuss it in the same way.”

All the networks have dabbled with scripted summer series in the past, but with all the recent rhetoric about year-round scheduling, this time it might take.

“It feels good going into the summer with some original programming,” Kahl says. “It’s exciting. For too many summers, we’ve limped in, and it feels like we’re walking in with our heads high, proud and unbowed.”