Summer broadcast TV: It's not just for reruns and schlocky reality anymore.
Or at least it won't be for long, thanks to a shifting dynamic in production costs — reality is getting spendier while scripted gets cheaper — and advertisers' desire for fresh scripted fare.
Several weeks into the summer broadcast TV season, time-tested reality shows like NBC's "America's Got Talent," Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" and ABC's "The Bachelorette" are dominating the sought-after 18-49 demographic.
Throw in CBS' steady summer staple "Big Brother" and Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," and it would seem the old formula is holding up. But taking the summer off just isn't going to cut it with ad buyers anymore, according to several network executives and advertising buyers who spoke with TheWrap.
"Advertisers do like to see the broadcast networks putting on fresh scripted shows during the summer like ABC is doing this year," one media buyer who declined to be identified said. "There are the top-tier summer reality shows that advertisers will embrace. But for the most part, an advertiser would rather take a lower rating in a new scripted show than a higher rating in a lower-tier reality show."
Even before the reality revolution, high production costs dissuaded broadcast networks from throwing new scripted programming into the summer ratings black hole. But reality shows are getting more elaborate, and studios are finding creative ways to make scripted TV less expensive.
"The trend that started about 10 years ago to simply throw on reality shows during the summer is starting to come full-circle," a network executive told TheWrap. "You're going to see more fresh scripted shows being put on broadcast schedules during the summer going forward."
"Reality shows are no longer cheap to produce," another network executive told TheWrap. "A typical reality show might start at $650,000 to produce, but that could go up to $1.5 million for a top-tier show."
Studios are finding that they can produce summer scripted shows for that kind of money by using lesser-known actors and film in Canada or other locations outside the country or away from Los Angeles and New York; or by finding dual revenue streams, like selling the shows internationally first, to offset the costs of license fees.
And these shows don't have to do huge ratings to make money. They just have to make the economics work.
ABC has taken the biggest stride into summer-scripted this season, and makes the best example.
The word on its three summer scripted shows — "The Gates," "Scoundrels" and "Rookie Blue" — is that they're low-rated failures. Not so, if you ask advertisers, who very much appreciate and support them.
Not only are all three shows significantly higher-rated than the shows they replaced in the same time periods from ABC's schedule last summer — regular season hits like "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives," and "Brother's & Sisters" — but they are among the better-rated summer shows overall, particularly "Rookie Blue."
While ABC took a financial hit last summer airing poorly repeating regular-season serialized shows, its new crop is bringing in revenue. (See chart for ratings/demographics breakdown).
In the same 9 p.m. Thursday slot that "Grey's" occupied last summer, "Rookie Blue" is averaging 4.4 million more viewers and an 18-49 rating that is 137 percent higher. "Scoundrels" is averaging 2 million more viewers on Sunday at 9 than "Desperate Housewives" did last summer and an 18-49 rating that is 70 percent higher. And "The Gates" is averaging 1.9 million more viewers on Sunday at 10 than "Brothers & Sisters" did last summer, and an 18-49 rating that is 160 percent higher.
With a 1.9 18-49 rating, "Rookie Blue" is rated higher in the demo than all of the repeating summer CBS procedural dramas, and its average 7.2 million viewers is just 500,000 less than repeats of "CSI: Miami" and "Criminal Minds."
"Rookie Blue" is produced in Canada, where it also airs, and ABC got a license fee for the show comparable to a mid-range priced reality show, individuals familiar with the situation told TheWrap. "The Gates," which ABC is getting through Fox TV Studios, was priced lower for the network because the studio was able to factor in international sales. And "Scoundrels" is being produced by ABC Studios, which can control its own production costs.
And proving that reality programming can be more pricey to produce than some summer scripted shows, ABC is paying about double the licensing fee for summer reality series "Wipeout" than it is for "Rookie Blue" — at about the same cost as "Scoundrels," individuals familiar with the production of the shows told TheWrap.
Fox is running fresh episodes of two scripted series this summer, veteran drama series "Lie to Me," and new drama series "Good Guys" (left). Both will also be on its fall schedule and Fox is hoping the summer exposure of these two shows will bring in more viewers when they air this fall.
"Good Guys" is averaging a 1.4 18-49 rating, tied for 37th among all summer shows and averaging 4.5 million viewers.
NBC has only one new scripted show this summer, "Persons Unknown," which is averaging a 1.3 18-49 rating, 40th among all summer shows, and is averaging 3.7 million viewers.
But several media buyers point out that NBC developed several shows that did not make it onto its fall schedule, more than in previous years. And it's possible that some of these scripted shows could slide into next summer.
CBS, with all of its procedurals repeating so well — at least among total viewers — also has only one fresh scripted show this summer, drama "Flashpoint," which is averaging a 1.4 18-49 rating and wins its Friday night time period.
Following closest to the traditional year-round broadcast TV model, CBS repeats all of its dramas during the summer rather than substituting reality programming. And the network has the most-watched scripted show of the summer, in repeats, "NCIS," which is averaging 10.5 million viewers, followed by "Two and a Half Men" with 9.3 million, "NCIS: Los Angeles" with 9.1 million, "The Mentalist," with 9 million, "The Big Bang Theory" with 8.9 million and "CSI:NY" with 8 million viewers.
So CBS is able to offer advertisers a much-desired mass reach audience in scripted programming during the summer — albeit an older audience — without having to spend money producing new scripted or even a lot of reality. CBS does air its reality summer reality show "Big Brother" three times a week.
But the other networks that don't have the luxury of having a large stable of scripted shows that repeat well are now facing more of an urgency to produce.
"There are many advertisers who just don't want to buy 16 weeks of summer game shows or reality," said one network executive. "The thinking is that the audiences for many of these summer game shows are not the audiences they want to reach with their advertising."
Executives at the broadcast networks are also annoyed that many of the cable TV networks have been able to successfully woo away ad dollars by premiering their returning and new scripted shows during the summer months.
"There is a perception that the broadcast networks take the summer off when they just put on reality shows, while the cable networks make a big deal out of premiering new scripted stuff," one network executive told TheWrap. "Why should we cede the summer to cable, when many of those shows that are considered to be hits on cable do only fractions of the viewership and ratings that the broadcast network shows do?"