Other networks should be happy about CBS's summer success with the Stephen King miniseries
The premiere of CBS's "Under the Dome" beat almost everything else on television Monday, but CBS's rivals should still be happy about the success of the Stephen King miniseries — because it bodes well for them, too.
The promising debut of "Under the Dome" suggests a scripted show can do well, even in summer. And it partially validates broadcasters' recent strategy of ordering fewer episodes of splashy new shows, then promoting them as "event" series.
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For years, cable aired fewer episodes per season than broadcast networks, in what might arguably be considered a quality-over-quantity approach. "Under the Dome," which was originally developed at Showtime, boasted premium cable production values: Viewers were treated to the sight of a plane smashing into the dome, and a cow being sliced in half.
Also in the less-is-more camp: Fox is planning two limited-run series for near the end of next season, a 12-episode "24" revival and the new "Wayward Pines." The fewer-episodes trend also extends to new dramas like ABC's "Betrayal" and CBS's "Hostages," which will have shorter runs than the traditional 22 to 24 episodes.
Also read: 'Under the Dome' Review: Captivating
One advantage to limited-run series (which, yes, we used to just call "miniseries") is that they let networks save face. A network can let a low-rated limited series just end, without having to cancel it.
But if one does well, a network can bring it back again, as CBS may do with "Under the Dome." It's a strategy FX followed by ordering "American Horror Story" for two additional seasons after its debut in 2011.
"If the show is a hit, I hope we'll find a way to bring everyone back," he said. "Everyone who survives, that is."
Networks are urgently looking for ways to draw viewers back to watching live television as they face growing competition from cable and streaming shows. Football continues to draw live viewers, but ratings for musical competitions like Fox's "American Idol" and NBC's "The Voice" are down.
Broadcasters are coming off of a 2012-13 season in which just two new scripted series cracked the top 30 shows: NBC's "Revolution" and Fox's "The Following." Even as broadcasters struggle to find hits, AMC has landed the top scripted show on television with "The Walking Dead."
Though "Under the Dome" aired after the season's end, it had a better debut rating than any 2012-13 broadcast show except "Revolution." ("Under the Dome" slightly edged out the debut of "The Following." Notably, the Kevin Bacon serial killer drama contributed to the trend toward shorter seasons by airing just 15 episodes in its first year.)
"Under the Dome" earned a 3.3 rating in the key demographic in the key 18-49 demographic, and 13.5 million total viewers, in its debut. The rating tied that of NBC's deciding game in the NHL Finals. "Under the Dome" also had the most total premiere viewers of any summer broadcast show since at least 2007.
For years, miniseries fell out of favor on broadcast TV as HBO cornered the market. But audience wariness is helping to make them popular once again. Many viewers hesitate to latch onto shows with a mystery element if they fear those shows will be canceled without resolutions. They've been burned before by shows like ABC's "FlashForward" and NBC's "The Event."
But the preset length of a miniseries promises – or at least strongly suggests – that a story will come to a satisfying conclusion.
"Under the Dome" is also a good sign for networks' move toward year-round programming.
Though viewership falls off dramatically in the summer months, "Under the Dome" proved that viewers will tune into big scripted shows if networks offer them. That bodes well for the Fox limited-run shows debuting next year. "24" is expected in late May, and "Wayward Pines" is likely to arrive in early summer.
For years, cable networks have begun sneaking in high-profile programming when networks weren't as competitive. Discovery, for example, scored Sunday by airing "Skywire Live With Nik Wallenda," a tightrope walk near the Grand Canyon that earned 13 million viewers during the walk itself.
"I think CBS is really excited about the idea of doing something of this scope during the summer," said Brian K. Vaughn, who developed the series. He said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said early on: "We don't want to cede summer to cable. We can't do exciting, huge television during the summer as well."
CBS is known for its caution, and "Under the Dome" was a rare foray from the No. 1 network's proven mix of procedurals, sitcoms and reality shows. But it also hedged its bets with a deal to make episodes available online to Amazon Prime customers just four days after they air on television.
That means the dome's reach is about to expand. Look out for your cows.