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‘Uncle Buck,’ ‘$100,000 Pyramid,’ ‘Spartan’ Give Summer TV a Reality Check

Summer used to be a time for broadcast networks to stack reruns and inexpensive reality programs while waiting for fall to begin. But in recent years, competition from cable pushed broadcasters to be more adventurous. The hottest months turned into a place to experiment with new dramas, new comedies and envelope-pushing event series.

But summer 2016 has upended that trend. Broadcasters have watched viewers flock to unscripted competition series and game shows, including several new entries in those genres, and reject scripted offerings.

“The competition shows, whether they’re game shows or ‘Big Brother’ or “America’s Got Talent,’ are all doing well, and the new scripted shows, dramas, comedies, it doesn’t matter, are not,” says Katz Television Group’s Bill Carroll.

Of broadcast’s 15 highest rated original series so far this summer, only one — ABC’s “Uncle Buck” — is a scripted sitcom or drama series. The family comedy averaged a 1.2 Nielsen live-plus-same-day rating among adults 18-49 over eight episodes. It was cancelled Wednesday by ABC.

Though “Uncle Buck” failed to survive, it was a ratings dynamo compared to this summer’s other dramas and comedies. CBS freshmen “American Gothic” and “BrainDead” — the former from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, the latter from “The Good Wife” creators Michelle and Robert King — have failed to crack the summer’s top 30. Returning dramas such as CBS’ “Zoo” and Fox’s “Wayward Pines” are down considerably from last year.

Unscripted, meanwhile, is thriving. Mainstays “America’s Got Talent,” “American Ninja Warrior,” “Big Brother” and “The Bachelorette” have seen their ratings hold steady or dip only slightly.

And summer 2016 has been a launching pad for several potential new franchises. ABC built on last year’s success with “Celebrity Family Feud,” positioning the Steve Harvey vehicle as the lead-off hitter in a Sunday-night lineup of celebrity-fueled game shows. Through two weeks, that strategy has paid off, with the Michael Strahan-hosted “The $100,000 Pyramid” and Alec-Baldwin-hosted “Match Game” ranking with “Feud” among the 10 highest rated shows this season. NBC freshman competition show “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” is also in the top 10.

The success of the competition and game shows has given this summer a different complexion from that of 2013, when CBS’ “Under the Dome” was broadcast’s breakout hit, averaging a 2.7 demo rating. The show’s success prompted not just a surprise renewal for what had been billed as a miniseries, but also a trend. Subsequent summers saw CBS bet on more highly serialized, short-run event dramas such as “Extant,” “Zoo,” “BrainDead” and “American Gothic,” with diminishing returns. Competitors moved forward with their own entries such as ABC’s “Black Box,” NBC’s “Aquarius” and Fox’s “Wayward Pines.”

None came close to matching the success of “Under the Dome.”

Those shows’ middling-to-awful results are not entirely their own faults. Calendar quirks make summer a challenging environment for scripted series. Holidays and vacations interrupt viewing patterns, making it difficult for audiences to keep up with shows — serialized dramas in particular.

This summer presents an even greater challenge than most to schedulers. The Republican and Democratic national conventions in July and Summer Olympics in August will disrupt broadcast programming for nearly four weeks.

In an environment where each week is different from the next, competition and game shows enjoy an advantage.

“People are traveling in the summer,” says A. Smith & Company’s Arthur Smith, executive producer of “Spartan.” “It’s important that programs are accessible. The great thing about ‘American Ninja Warrior’ and ‘Spartan’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’ is those are shows you can pick up at any time.”

Conditions that favor lighter unscripted fare do not make launching a big scripted hit in summer impossible. But doing so now looks a lot harder for broadcasters than it used to.

“I think the expectations changed with ‘Under the Dome’,” Carroll says. “And now expectations are probably more realistic.”

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