Broadcast networks wilt in summer

'Jon & Kate,' 'Pains' propel cablers

Viewers tuned in en masse last week to see the marriage behind “Jon & Kate Plus 8” break down on camera.

Here’s what they didn’t bother to watch last week: the equally stunning collapse of the once-mighty broadcast networks.

While cablers glow in the summer heat of TLC’s “Jon & Kate,” as well as USA’s “Royal Pains,” HBO’s “True Blood,” ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and plenty more, over at the broadcast networks … well, viewers have been treated to a dumping ground of repeats, first-run episodes of canceled shows and “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.”

Sorry, celebs, no one’s there to hear your cries.

“It seems like the summer of ‘let’s just throw anything on the air,” ‘ one TV exec says of the broadcasters. “And they don’t seem to have the time or are making the effort to promote new shows.”

It’s not gonna get any better, either. No big events like the Olympics will be around this year to bail the broadcasters out. And if the somewhat soft season premiere of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” is any indication, even summer reality staples won’t be the salve the networks need.

Through the first four weeks of summer, the Big Four were down 9% in total viewers, 15% in adults 18-49 and an even steeper 18% in adults 18-34, according to Nielsen.

The week of June 15-21 was particularly brutal to the nets, as big-ratings events like the NBA Finals had drawn to a close and no new programming made much noise. ABC was hit particularly hard: It wound up with its lowest weekly average on record — a 1.1 rating among adults 18-49, which put it in sixth place behind even USA Network and Univision (which is believed to be another first).

CBS is managing to weather the storm better than the others, and was up year-to-year among total viewers, while Fox, ABC and NBC slipped by 20% or more. The Eye isn’t burning up the charts, but as the owner of the most consistent year-round sked, and shows that repeat pretty well, it’s benefiting in the summer even without much original fare.

On the flip side, cable is riding high, accounting for five out of the week’s top 20 programs — compared with just two in the same frame last year.

At USA, hot new “Royal Pains” and returnee “Burn Notice” have beat out scripted repeats on ABC, NBC and CBS in their Thursday night slots.

The cabler is also solid on Sundays with dramas “In Plain Sight” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” And even its Monday night “WWE Raw” showcase has cracked the overall primetime top 10.

Over at ABC Family, the second season launch of “American Teenager” gave the net a record audience last week. “The Closer” continues to perform well for TNT, while that channel’s Jada Pinkett Smith medical drama “Hawthorne” has fared reasonably well in its first two outings. And “True Blood” is up from its first-season performance, making paybox HBO more of a summer player than last year.

Even unscripted cable is performing strong: Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey” was powerful, while Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” tied for No. 1 in its slot recently.

Then there’s that “Jon & Kate” phenomenon.

TLC posted the biggest primetime audience in its history last Monday, as “Jon & Kate Plus 8” averaged a whopping 10.6 million viewers — making it the most-watched episode of an unscripted cable series ever. The heavily hyped episode, in which Jon and Kate Gosselin confirmed they had filed for divorce, also gave the net its best-ever adults 18-49 and 18-34 numbers.

The networks aren’t entirely in the dumps: Fox has been helped a touch by “So You Think You Can Dance,” which posted the top two slots among the 18-49 crowd — but the net’s week-long win was still a measly 1.7 in the demo, barely above second-place CBS, while NBC tied with USA and Univision for third place. (At netlet CW isn’t even on anyone’s radar in the summer, falling below 1 million viewers for the first time.)

It’s the same old story of collapse and erosion every summer, and yet the networks seem to be at a loss to do anything about it.

Part of it is beyond their control: Cable has loaded up the summer with strong, original scripted fare. And DVR usage is cutting into ratings on summer broadcast repeats, which are performing worse than ever — including procedurals, which used to still at least pop a decent number in reruns.

But the networks aren’t doing themselves any favors by airing so many repeats. About the only encores working for the broadcasters right now are comedies: CBS’ Monday sked, and Fox’s Sunday night animated entries.

And if that’s not primetime poison, this is: The nets also plopped a lot of “summer burnoff” on their skeds, airing original episodes of shows that viewers had already rejected (“Kings,” “Pushing Daisies,” “The Chopping Block,” “Surviving Suburbia”). If they already shunned them in strong timeslots, what makes the nets think auds will search them out when transferred to low-profile Friday and Saturday slots in the summer?

Low-cost international acquisitions like “The Listener” and “Diamonds” may be giving the nets some original programming, but it’s not the kind of fare that is going to make any noise for the nets.

The broadcasters still have a few rounds of ammunition left: “Big Brother” at CBS and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” at ABC. But both of those aging franchises aren’t exactly the kind of fresh blood they need, or the kind of shows that are now exciting viewers over on cable.

If the networks are aware of the thumping they’re receiving, they’re not showing it. Despite the fact that several cable shows are in the top 10, and that USA has even reached parity in primetime with the broadcasters, they refuse to admit it. The nets continue to send out press releases claiming victory in a timeslot where they’re actually in second, or even third, place because of cable.

In other words, if they’re not careful, the broadcasters could wind up just like “Jon & Kate” — divorced from reality.