Every year the networks promise to do a better job convincing viewers to stick around in the summer.
And almost every year, they pretty much fail.
That was certainly the case this summer, a season which saw every network except CBS lose audience from last year in both overall viewers and key demos.
Even a flood of first-run programming, both scripted and unscripted, couldn’t stop the erosion.
The good news is, summer isn’t all about ratings for broadcasters. All those repeats of "CSI" and "Grey’s Anatomy" are on for a reason: They’re basically free programming for the networks, and advertisers like being in familiar fare (even if the ratings aren’t great).
That doesn’t mean the networks are happy about how they did during the last three months.
Talk to execs privately and they’ll admit they can’t keep shrugging their shoulders as summer numbers get worse each year– particularly with cable continuing to use the season to launch new tentpoles (think USA’s "Royal Pains" and Lifetime’s "Drop Dead Diva").
So as suits start quietly start plotting yet another new summer strategy, here are five things they might be able to learn from the beach season just past:
Don’t give up on scripted series during the summer.
This, despite tons of evidence that suggests viewers just don’t seem interested in watching first-run dramas or comedies on broadcast TV between June and September.
The nets put on what might have been a record number of scripted shows this summer: "The Philanthropist," "Defying Gravity," "Mental," "Merlin" and more. Without exception, they all flopped.
This year, the networks thought they had found a solution: Throwing on series produced by or in conjunction with international broadcasters, such as "Merlin" and "Gravity." They cost a fraction of what a traditional drama goes for, which meant the networks didn’t need blockbuster numbers to make the economics work.
Viewers smelled the cheap, however. In many cases, repeats of established hits did far better than the newcomers.
So why keep trying?
Because giving up means ceding one-fourth of the year to cable, which has had no problem launching numerous scripted successes in the summer. Except for a few reality shows, the entire pop culture buzz machine virtually ignores broadcast TV in the summer.
Network insiders insist they’re not going to give up on scripted shows in the summer. A change in strategy may be in the works, however.
"Scripted fare can succeed on a broadcast network in the summer," argues Preston Beckman, scheduling guru for Fox Broadcasting. "But we have to position it not as summer fare, but as an extension of our season.
He suggests starting a show in April or May and letting in run into July, or possibly launching a fall series in early August, as Fox did with "The O.C." Another option: Extending a mid-season show like ‘Human Target’ into the summer.
Beckman’s counterpart at NBC, Mitch Metcalf, agrees timing could be key when it comes to summer series.
"If we were to seed a night with a great show in the late spring there is no reason it can’t work through the summer months," he says.
One network wag, however, warns that networks also need to step up their marketing of summer series. "What’s the point of launching shows in the summer if we’re not going to tell people they’re on?" he says.
Networks mulling original fare in summer might also keep in mind the next lesson…
It’s summer — lighten up!
TNT made a whole bunch of noise about expanding to three nights of programming this summer with serious fare such as "Dark Blue" and "Hawthorne."
But cable’s no. 1 network, by a mile, was easy, breezy USA — the king of summertime TV fun.
Rather than kill viewers’ summertime buzz, USA programmers serve up a steady diet of what might be called Beach TV. Shows such as "Burn Notice," "In Plain Sight" and the summer’s top newcomer, "Royal Pains," are big hits with audiences because they feature interesting characters, cool locales and just a dash of sex appeal.
Such series used to be a staple of network schedules, before execs decided to load up on crime-filled procedurals and Byzantine serials. Remember "Magnum, P.I."? "Remington Steele"? "The Fall Guy?"
Complex epics such as "Mad Men" may win Emmys and certainly make sense for networks such as AMC. But most broadcast and cable nets would do well to follow USA’s lead and lighten the heck up during the summer.
We’ve got our fingers crossed for a "Hart to Hart" remake.
When it comes to summer reality, old school rules.
The networks tried to come up with a big new breakout reality show this summer, something to match the success of past warm weather smashes such as "American Idol."
Viewers just weren’t that in to the new ideas, however — maybe because many of them felt old.
"More to Love"? "The Bachelor" with fat people.
"The Great American Road Trip"? "The Amazing Race: Family Edition."
It’d be easy to blame these failures on the glut of reality shows on broadcast and cable, and there’d be some truth in that argument.
But then what explains the fact that several long-running reality shows either maintained or grew their audience this year? Among the winners: "Big Brother" (+6%), "So You Think You Can Dance" (+8%), "The Bachelorette" (+7%).
In most cases, these ratings gains can be attributed to producers doubling efforts to keep their shows fresh by adding new elements. NBC’s "America’s Got Talent" — flat for the year, despite a lack of an Olympics halo — changed hosts, a gutsy call given the show’s status as summer TV’s No. 1 series.
If the networks would have the courage to take some real chances in the reality space rather just remaking what’s worked before, they might be able to develop some new hits to add to their roster of established franchises.
David Letterman is the most competitive man in television. Learn from him.
Sure, the late night "wars" have been overhyped by media desperate for a replay of Jay-Dave. The fact is, Conan O’Brien continues to handily beat Letterman in key demographics (albeit with a smaller overall audience).
Nonetheless, there’s no denying Letterman has maximized every last ounce of opportunity presented to him by Jay Leno’s departure.
Big name guests? June alone had Dave welcoming Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Howard Stern and Paris Hilton.
Stunts and gimmicks? How ’bout Britney Spears reading the top ten list in a bikini?
If Letterman and CBS implemented a Dave war room strategy this summer, a CBS rep isn’t talking.
"There’s no secret sauce," says Chris Ender, a senior VP at the network. "Team Letterman delivered great bookings and memorable TV moments this summer, and the network told the story on-air, online and in print."
The bottom line lesson that applies to anyone in TV: Showbiz is a battlefield, to paraphrase Jordin Sparks’ summer smash. Better go and get your armor.
Family values could pay off for the networks — if they tried.
It’s no "High School Musical," but Disney Channel nonetheless caught the industry’s attention when last week’s "The Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie" drew more than 11 million viewers. That made it cable’s biggest show of the year, and one of the largest audiences– period– this summer.
True, the bulk of viewers were under 18, and networks don’t get much money from kiddies. But a lot of adults watched "Wizards" with their kids, too.
Likewise, NBC’s "America’s Got Talent" is expected to once again finish as the No. 1 show of the summer. Its family friendly appeal is undeniable.
There are a lot of logical reasons the networks got out of the family programming business. But the success of "Wizards" and "AGT" suggests summertime might not be such a bad time to take some chances on a broad-appeal family comedy or drama.