Big Four TV Networks No Longer Sitting Out the Summer

Led by CBS with 'Under the Dome,' broadcasters making big bet on recapturing viewers

Under the Dome (CBS Studios Intl.)

CBS’ ambitious series “Under the Dome” is leading the charge among the broadcasters to recapture viewers and advertising dollars that have fled to cable during the summer months. But with auds accustomed to the Big Four’s traditional off-season lineup of reality programming, series burn-offs and reruns — and many viewers forgoing the tube for sunshine — is this the start of a new wave or the beginnings of another washout?

If a small plane crashes into an invisible barrier during one of broadcast-TV’s most ratings-challenged times of year, does it make a sound?

The major broadcast networks certainly hope it does this summer. An airplane crash and the resulting havoc it creates will be front and center of CBS’ much-anticipated summer event-series “Under the Dome,” which bows June 24. The drama, based on the Stephen King tome about a small town that is suddenly trapped underneath an invisible barrier, represents the first eye-popping shot in what looks to be a summer-long salvo from the Eye and its counterparts as they attempt what may at this point be impossible: taking back the summer from cable competitors.

The Big Four nets are investing more money and promotional resources for original programming in the summer frame this year than they have in more than a decade. The goal is twofold: to grab more advertising dollars in the off-season and, just as important, to keep viewer circulation from dropping to anemic levels, which makes the job of gaining a foothold in the fall that much harder. CBS is leading the charge with “Dome,” the kind of big-budget, vfx-heavy drama with an impressive pedigree (Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and CBS TV Studios for starters) that would normally be reserved for a big fall kickoff campaign.

“Dome” and the scripted skeins that ABC and NBC are rolling out in late May, June and July are a far cry from the reruns and reality series that have dotted broadcasters’ summer primetime skeds for years.

Following the old rules about summertime is damaging for the networks, says Neal Baer, “Dome’s” executive producer and showrunner. “If we don’t put on something new, then someone else will.”

Indeed, someone already has, as anybody who has turned to cable in the past decade to watch “Burn Notice” or “The Closer” can tell you.

While it’s true that summer ratings will never match those of autumn and spring — after all, viewers still do what anyone would at a time when, as DuBose Heyward once wrote, “the livin’ is easy” — broadcasters nevertheless must race to take back the season. Original reality programming, the lifeblood of summers stocked full of Fox’s Gordon Ramsay cooking-themed programs, CBS’ “Big Brother” and NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” is becoming more expensive to produce. And repeats just don’t bring in the big ratings they did when CBS, NBC and ABC were the only dinosaurs roaming the earth. Besides, in a world where the networks stand to benefit from repeat viewings of programs through online streaming and video-on-demand as well as viral chatter via social media, making an effort to keep audiences glued to the screen (and second screen) year-around is simply good business.

“We can’t go to sleep during the summer because we have to keep our ratings high enough to launch the fall season,” says Andy Kubitz, exec veep of program planning and scheduling at ABC. With audiences splintered throughout dozens of entertainment opportunities, reaching them with ballyhoo for the fall schedule — the lifeblood of broadcast TV — becomes ever more difficult.

(“DOME” DENIZENS: Showrunner Neal Baer, from right, and series creator Brian K. Vaughan with staffers Dan Truly, Scott Gold, Caitlin Parrish and Adam Stein..)

In addition to the high-concept “Under the Dome,” CBS is reviving “Unforgettable,” a canceled crime series from the 2011-2012 season that captured more than 12 million viewers on average, per Nielsen (though just 3 million in the 18-49 demo), and running a CBS News docu-skein focused on the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn. ABC will unveil “Mistresses,” a soap series set to debut in June that producers K.J. Steinberg and Rina Mimoun hope can generate the social-media buzz of “Gossip Girl”; as well as “Motive,” a scripted crime procedural. NBC will serve up “Crossing Lines,” a procedural that tracks the cross-border investigations of an elite international police force, and the tonally appropriate drama “Camp,” about frisky teenagers at a summer bivouac.

The initiative won’t be a single-season effort. Fox will run familiar fare this summer, but is working behind the scenes to launch a group of limited series, a few of which, says chief operating officer Joe Earley, are being viewed for summer 2014. Even netlet CW has gotten in on the act, having gone from having very little to offer in the way of new content in summer to running 52 hours of original programming during the period.

If anything could reignite summer interest in the broadcast networks, it ought to be “Under the Dome.” CBS has touted the program for months, even giving it valuable promo time during the most recent Super Bowl, and setting up a clever Web-based stunt that gives fans a peek at how their own house might look under a transparent shield. And Baer promises unique special effects throughout the series’ 13 episodes, not just in its debut. All of that sounds very different from the stuff TV audiences have grown accustomed to seeing on broadcast TV in the summers of decades past: reality programming, burn-offs of shows that were deemed unsuitable for the regular season, and, of course, repeats.

Launching the high-concept drama in June runs counter to TV history. The month, along with July and August, have long been known as a time when the broadcast networks more or less put up a sign that read “Gone Fishin’,” explains Tim Brooks, a TV-industry historian and a former research executive at Lifetime, USA and NBC. Every May, a bevy of series finales create an image in viewers’ minds of the Big Four closing up shop for a few months, he says. While the years have been filled with various experiments, it’s clear that much of the stuff that runs on broadcast in the summer is not as good as what airs during the rest of the year.

This isn’t the first time broadcasters have vowed to become more proactive in skedding the off-season. The networks “would make a lot of noise about how, ‘We’re going to do things in the summer, we’re not going to give up,’ and they would try a couple of shows — usually the ones that didn’t test quite as well as the ones that premiered in the fall,” Brooks recounts. “And they would go back to their usual ways.”

For sure, there will be some Burn-Off Theater activity this summer, as nets quietly run out the clock on 2012-13 skeins that didn’t make the cut for the 2013-14 campaign (Fox’s “The Goodwin Games,” NBC’s “Save Me”). But there’s been a noticeable rise in the effort to order series specifically designed for the summer months.

“The audience has been led to believe that the only scripted (programming) exists on cable during the summer,” says Mark Pedowitz, prexy of the CW. “You’ve got to beat that stuff back a little bit.”

Nina Tassler may be about to fire summer’s biggest shot, but she isn’t saying so — at least not outright. Sure, the CBS Entertainment president
believes there’s upside there for the Eye. “There is opportunity there. There is audience there,” she says.

But “Under the Dome” seems less like a quiet attempt to draw a few extra eyeballs and more of an allout blitzkrieg. “It sounds like that is going to be quite an event, and it’s great to see that sort of investment being made in programming at a time of year that is vitally important to some advertisers,” says Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast at ad buyer OMD. “Sure, I get it: Television usage levels go down in the summer and that could be a reason not to spend the money.” But, he adds, those months remain extremely important to a range of sponsors, including consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers.

When Tassler learned that Amblin was seeking a home for “Under the Dome” after it stalled in development at the Eye’s sibling network Showtime, “Dome” creatives say she took exactly one weekend in October to decide if it was right for CBS.

After sending the pilot script, penned by exec producer Brian K. Vaughan, to Tassler late on a Friday, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, co-presidents of Amblin Television, got a call from the CBS programming topper first thing Monday morning: She wanted the series — not a pilot but a firm 13-episode order.

Falvey recalls Tassler telling the Amblin producing duo: “ ‘We want to attack the summer.’ That,” he adds, “was an exciting prospect to us.”

CBS and Amblin quickly lined up an A-team to work with Vaughan, who had been with the show from its inception. Baer was recruited as showrunner; Lost vet Jack Bender was brought on as exec producer-director; and Niels Arden Oplev, helmer of the original “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” pic, came on to direct the first seg. None of these names would struggle to find work on a regular-season show, but CBS’ pitch of embracing innovation convinced them to sit out this year’s pilot season and commit to “Dome.” Even author King traveled down to the show’s Wilmington, N.C., set to check out the early days of lensing. Baer bills the show as a “popcornish” thrillride, fortified with a solid ensemble that includes “Breaking Bad” fan favorite Dean Norris.

In what could become a template for the future, CBS also has worked to ensure the program has economic support in place; with a nod to the inherently reduced audience levels of summer, the Eye has reversed its usual stance on licensing the latest episodes of its current programs, striking a deal with Amazon that makes “Dome” episodes available to Amazon Prime members just four days after they debut on CBS.

The Eye expects sales of international rights for the show to cover 200 markets, and says numerous outlets have expressed interest in televising “Under the Dome” close to the date of its U.S. broadcast. If it clicks, the flow of subscription video-on-demand and international coin on top of advertising revenue will make the show a very good bet for CBS — one execs hope will be more than a summer fling.

Tassler says the show’s creators have five to seven seasons’ worth of stories, and hints that CBS could run the program in cycles that appear at different times of the year. The Amblin producers note 13-episode runs would be more sustainable over the long run, bringing to mind cable programs like AMC’s “The Walking Dead” that run in two parts of a bifurcated season over the course of 12 months. “We’re going to keep our eyes open,” says Tassler.

While CBS may launch the most dazzling summer-schedule skyrocket, its rivals aren’t sitting still. And experimentation isn’t the only factor spurring them on. “The idea of just sort of going dark in the summer is just not working for us,” says Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment.

It’s the behavior broadcast networks have exhibited for years. No one will discount the likability of a summer fling like “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” which debuted on CBS in August 1971, and then joined the network’s regular lineup. And it’s true that “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” all launched in summer months and went on to be primetime champs. But despite those examples to the contrary — and the fact that Fox lent “Beverly Hills, 90210” a boost when it launched the show’s second season in July of 1991— summer has been, for the most part, a time when the broadcast networks have put their A-game on the shelf.

Until now — and some might say, “still” — cable’s summer onslaught hasn’t done much to rouse the broadcasters. When Monk debuted on USA in 2002 followed by “The Closer” on TNT in 2005, the broadcasters should have noticed (indeed, ABC, which originally developed “Monk,” ran repeats of the detective drama in the summers of 2002 and 2004). Here were clever, procedural dramas built around quirky and flawed individuals that won decent-sized audiences, and hooked enough viewers that cablers could cite the shows in their efforts to drum up higher program fees from distributors. Despite Fox’s effort in 2004 to launch originals like sitcom “Method & Red” and drama “North Shore” in summer, the programs didn’t stick.

Meantime, the gap between summer ad revs for broadcasters and the ad coin earmarked for cable during the same period has begun to widen noticeably, and not in the broadcasters’ favor. Last May, English-language broadcast and cable ran close for sponsor dollars, with broadcast securing approximately $1.92 billion to cable’s roughly $2.09 billion, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. In June, however, the figures widened: Broadcast secured $1.25 billion, while cable stayed close to its previous figure, with $2.08 billion. In July, broadcast’s ad take rose slightly, but the gap remained: $1.33 billion to cable’s $1.74 billion. Only in August did the split narrow, with broadcast taking in $1.79 billion to cable’s $1.92 billion.

The networks have other reasons for expanding their repertoire. The programming costs of reality shows, which once were far less than scripted hourlongs, have nearly reached parity with scripted fare, says Fox’s Earley. A drama in its first three seasons should cost between $2 million and $3 million per episode, according to one industry estimate. Meanwhile, a top hourlong reality program in its first few years can cost as much as $1.5 million to $1.8 million per episode.

And these costs are growing as ratings for summer reruns continue to erode. In the summer of 2003, for instance, an average of nearly 14.8 million people tuned in to watch “CSI” on CBS on a live-plus-same-day basis, according to Nielsen. Last summer, an average of just 8 million watched encores of CBS’ “NCIS.”

To illustrate the narrower universe repped by summer viewers, even the off-season’s most-watched show, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” with a Tuesday episode that reached an average of 10.3 million people, according to Nielsen, would be hardpressed with that number to crack the top 10 between September and May.

Considering all these factors, it seems as if the broadcasters can’t win. If they keep originals off the air, audiences and ad dollars migrate elsewhere and viewers have less reason to check in — and see promos for the coming fall. And if they do program the off-season with ambition, it must be done with the understanding that matching fall or spring numbers is likely impossible.

The solution, it seems, is to devise financial models that mitigate risk. Consider NBC’s Crossing Lines, which will air in Germany and Italy as it runs in the U.S.; NBC merely has the U.S. broadcast rights to the series. ABC has done the same in the past few years with Canuck import “Rookie Blue.”

“We want something we’re excited about,” says NBC’s Salke, “something you can rally around and that feels like event television, but can also be produced in a way through co-production and partnership, where you are financially covered, and that creates more tolerance for a lower rating, because you’re reaching profit at a much lower rating point.” ABC has a similar idea about “Mistresses,” an adaptation of a BBC sudser about four female friends. The Alphabet sees the Alyssa Milano-starrer as a perfect accompaniment for the summer run of reality dating show “The Bachelorette,” and it has international partners in place to buttress the financing for the program, says ABC’s Kubitz. He likens the new show to “a good summer romance novel that people take on vacation,” and notes, “I don’t know if it’s going to be hugely successful, but it’s going to return profit for everybody.”

The producers say they are less concerned with traditional ratings, and curious to examine new sorts of metrics. “It’s less about a hard number and more about word of mouth,” says Mimoun, one of the drama’s executive producers. The showrunners’ only lament: They have known for some time that “Mistresses” would air in summer, and the long lead time meant a few of the musical selections included to accompany their episodes have already become popular — and therefore may not have as much of an impact on viewers as they would if the songs were still new.

The summer parade of scripted fare won’t stop after August, no matter what the fate of “Dome,” “Mistresses” and the others. Fox has grand plans for next year, says Earley: 10-episode “limited series” with big ideas such as a remake of the popular “Shogun” or a look at the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial. “People want to watch exciting things,” Earley says. “It just has to be enough to get them to stay indoors.”

If CBS’ plane crash can’t do it, TV executives may well spend the fall asking themselves what will.