Things are getting dramatic this summer at the networks.
Overcome with a case of cable envy, broadcasters are upping the ante with an uprecedented stable of off-season scripted series.
ABC, for example, has three hourlongs about to roll out in the coming weeks: cop skein “Rookie Blue,” thriller “The Gates” and actioner “Scoundrels.”
Fox is so high on its summer police action comedy “The Good Guys” that the show will now spill into fall.
NBC has the drama “Persons Unknown” and sitcom “100 Questions” on tap. And CBS is bringing back procedural “Flashpoint,” along with newbie cop drama “The Bridge.”
“We’re trying to make a bigger deal about keeping the lights on this summer,” says ABC Entertainment exec VP Jeff Bader, whose network has been heavily promoting the new series as “ABC’s new summer season.” “With cable networks making a huge deal out of having one or two original scripted series, (the fact) that we’re still mostly in originals this summer (has been overshadowed).”
Indeed, the networks have stood aside and watched as nets like USA earn buzz and attention thanks to summer series like “Burn Notice” and “Royal Pains.”
“Independently, the networks came to the conclusion that we can’t continue to allow cable to own the summer in terms of scripted shows,” says Fox scheduling topper Preston Beckman. “The perception of hits on cable is, in a way, laughable. What’s considered successes in the summer on cable, the networks could do and they’d be considered failures. But we’d at least try.”
Keeping viewer circulation healthy during the summer months is more important than ever, as the nets need to rely on their own air to bolster awareness and promotion of their fall series.
That’s never more true than this year, as NBC and ABC in particular face a September loaded with new launches.
The networks realized several years ago that it was foolish to put out “Gone Fishin’?” signs during the warmest months of the year — and so they’ve each come up with a reliable stable of reality franchises to bridge the gap between seasons.
ABC has “Wipeout” and “The Bachelorette”; NBC runs “America’s Got Talent” and “Last Comic Standing”; CBS continues its three-night “Big Brother”; and Fox has “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”
New entries added to the mix this year include ABC’s “Bachelor” spinoff, “Bachelor Pad”; NBC’s “Biggest Loser” spinoff, “Losing It With Jillian”; and the latest in Fox’s line of Gordon Ramsay series, “Masterchef.”
“But at some point, there are only so many unscripted series you can put on your schedule in the summer,” Beckman says, adding that many reality shows aren’t as cheap as they once were.
The Big Four nets have beenunwilling to add much scripted fare to the mix, mainly because it didn’t make economic sense. But that model has changed, and the nets now believe it’s financially smarter to try cost-efficient scripted skeins than to sell advertisers on drama repeats that would draw miniscule ratings. (That’s why ABC is running its three new summer dramas in slots normally held by serialized skeins “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Brothers and Sisters.”)
“It’s a model for the summer, and perhaps a model for the whole season,” Beckman says.
Several of the new scripted dramas — “Rookie Blue,” “Flashpoint” and “The Bridge” — are Canadian co-productions. Others come from Fox TV Studios, which has focused its efforts on producing cost-efficient series and relying on international dollars as well. FTVS is behind “Persons Unknown,” “The Good Guys” and “The Gates.”
“Some of the shows have different financial models and aren’t as expensive,” Bader says. “They’re probably still more expensive to produce than cable. But for us, they’re lower cost.”
But in adding new scripted hours, the nets have also had to spend more money in June, July and August — months where they used to sit back and amortize the costs of their expensive series via repeats. They also have to spend some marketing dollars in promoting the new shows — and some might argue that those dollars should go to launching the fall crop.
ABC, for example, is in the unusual position of promoting summer cop entry “Rookie Blue” while simultaneously promoting fall cop newcomer “Detroit 1-8-7.”
Only a handful of summer scripted series have performed well for the broadcasters — and even Bader admits he can’t think of any more recent than “Northern Exposure” (in 1990).
Part of the problem, Bader says, is that the networks haven’t given it enough of a try. If the nets collectively just try one or two scripted shows in a given summer, that’s not enough for anyone to pay attention.
But if “a rising tide lifts all ships,” then this summer’s bulging crop of new dramas might help everyone out, he says.
“We’re trying to even have more of a summer premiere week this year,” says Bader of ABC’s plan to launch most of its summer skeins immediately after the NBA Finals wrap in mid-June.
According to Bader, upwards of 65% of ABC’s summer lineup will be original.
The nets have programmed so much original fare this summer that some nights look as competitive as they do in-season.
On Tuesdays, for example, “Wipeout,” “Jillian” and “Hell’s Kitchen” will battle at 8 p.m., while ” America ‘s Got Talent,” “Masterchef” and ABC newcomer “Downfall” will eventually battle at 9.
Similarly, a Monday night faceoff is brewing between “The Bachelorette,” “Last Comic Standing” and Fox’s “Lie to Me”/”The Good Guys” combo. Even Friday nights — when one might expect the nets to go all-repeat in the summer — is shaping up as a battleground for originals.
In the case of “Good Guys,” which was intended as a summer series, credit Fox for not yanking it out of the warm-weather months once execs there fell in love with the show. Instead, the net ordered more segs to keep the show going into fall.
“We look at ‘Lie to Me’ and ‘Good Guys’ as June to December shows,” Beckman says. “We’re serious about playing around with air patterns and seeing if we can break down the definition of what’s a broadcast season.”
Part of that comes out of necessity: With “So You Think You Can Dance,” “American Idol” and (soon) “The X-Factor” taking up several hours of shelf space throughout the year, Fox needs to be crafty in finding ways to launch its new shows.
“If people read about all of this, they might believe us for a change,” Beckman says. “Part of this is re-educating the viewer that these are not burnoff shows. The more that we can get the word out there that there’s been a sea-change at the networks, in addition to the established unscripted shows, the better.”
Meanwhile, should any of ABC’s new scripted series work, Bader says he’d like to turn them into annual summer franchises. But given the hunger for hits in the regular season, that might be hard.
“If ‘Scoundrels,’ ‘Rookie Blue’ or ‘The Gates’ work, it would be fantastic to have those shows come back every summer,” he says. “But if they’re big hits, that would take quite a bit of discipline.”