This summer ABC and Fox execs made a decision: no more using the summer as a time to coast on reruns, reality, or dumped regular-season rejects like The Goode Family and Mental, two shows you don’t remember for very good reasons. No, this year they would spend the money to pack June, July, and August with original scripted series. After all, cable proved that you can build buzz in the summer, what with past hot-weather debuts as Mad Men and True Blood.
Unfortunately, it looks like all of the networks’ viewers aren’t cooperating: Only one of these new scripted shows, ABC’s Rookie Blue, has gotten any notable sampling. It would seem like the great Original Programming Gamble of 2010 has been a crushing failure
except for one thing, say network execs: In the new, diminished world of network television, even these dismally rated shows may be their best option.
Summer used to be the season of reruns; extra airings cost little and usually generated fair Nielsen numbers. And viewers had no choice but to watch them because, well, what the hell else were they gonna do? But now we’re in the world of TiVo, Hulu, and “Hey, I’ll just watch the whole season of 24 on Netflix!” While some shows — half-hour comedies, just about everything on CBS — still draw acceptable numbers the second (and third) time around, the rest drop precipitously. “At one point, a repeat [earned ratings] of about 50 percent of the original run,” says Fox strategist-in-chief Preston Beckman. “Now it’s often 20 or 25 percent. You’re always going to repeat some of your schedule … but it’s changed.”
The networks first tried to fill the summer with cheap reality shows, which have been showing diminishing returns: They don’t get the buzz they used to, and producers have been upping their rates. Plus, advertisers pay more for scripted shows than for reality. So this year ABC and Fox aggressively ordered original dramas, and made every effort to turn them into hits. Take Fox’s The Good Guys, a breezy caper starring Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks created by Matt Nix (who also made USA’s summer hit, Burn Notice). The network promoted it relentlessly during the late spring, touting the show during such hits as American Idol and House, and previewing the first episode after one of the last Idols of the season. Yet barely 4.6 million folks tuned in for the June 7 premiere, fewer than who watched the premiere of TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. By this week, Good Guys’s number was down to 4.2 million. “The Good Guys is not doing as well as we had hoped,” concedes Beckman.
The Alphabet network green-lit a trio of first-run shows: the quirky con-man dramedy Scoundrels, supernatural The Gates, and young-cops hour Rookie Blue (or Grey’s Academy, as some have tagged it). Rookie had a notable debut; it was sampled by more than 7 million viewers, giving ABC its best numbers for scripted summer fare in six years and drawing solid numbers with young adults. But the other two originals, paired on Sunday, only had so-so kickoffs in early June and have only cooled off since: Last week’s episodes were seen by barely 3 million viewers, down about 25 percent from their premieres.
However, as awful as these numbers might seem, they’re in line with the ratings of most mid-level scripted cable summer shows, like Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva and TNT’s Leverage. More important, most are actually doing better than the ratings Fox and ABC generated last summer with repeats. “Even at a 1.1 [in the key demo of 18-49], The Gates is doing better than the 0.6 we did last year in the time slot with a repeat,” notes ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader.
But is it financially viable? After all, scripted shows are more expensive to make, right? Not necessarily, as the networks have found ways to cut costs without (completely) sacrificing quality. For example, they’re now picking up shows originally produced for other countries (like the Canadian-born-and-aired Rookie Blue, whose sub-$500,000 per episode license fee is less than a third the cost of a typical U.S.-produced drama). And, they’re green-lighting series — such as The Good Guys — with built-in international partners who will air the show in their countries; it’s a model that lets U.S. networks have a say in how a show is put together without having to pay full freight for its production.
Meanwhile, summertime cable hits like Burn Notice and TNT’s The Closer, with audiences over 6 million, are now regularly matching or exceeding the tune-in numbers for many network reality shows and repeats. That means networks face losing even more summertime ad dollars to cable if they don’t find a way to better compete in the off-season.
So while the networks would obviously like ratings for scripted summer fare to be higher, original dramas (and maybe one day first-run comedies) can still turn a profit for networks, even when the numbers seem tiny. “The license fees [on most summer originals] are reasonable,” says another network executive, “which allows us to not freak out about the numbers in the same way we might if they cost as much as regular season shows.”
But why isn’t anyone showing up to see these new shows? The Gates and Scoundrels are certainly no Mad Men, but had they premiered in September, they probably would have gotten a better sampling. A big part of the problem is that, after decades of networks clearing out after May sweeps, viewers have been conditioned not to look for new scripted series on broadcast TV during summer. And this habit can’t be broken in just one season. (It doesn’t help that some networks are still using summer for burn-off theater; see NBC’s 100 Questions and Persons Unknown.) “We’ve trained the audience to think summer is not a time to watch scripted shows on the networks,” Bader theorizes. “There’s a part of me that thinks people say: ‘It’s summer; these shows can’t be good.’”
One way to change that perception, execs say, is to start blurring the lines between the regular season and summer by having shows premiere in, say, April and air through September (or by having June bows remain in prime time until December). The latter strategy is one Fox has said it plans to use with The Good Guys: After a summer run on Mondays, Guys will shift to Fridays (along with
Lie to Me Human Target) during the fall. The low ratings for Guys has already prompted clucking from rival networks that Fox won’t possibly keep such a low-rated series on the air though the fall. But Beckman says: Why not? “There’s been no discussion about doing anything but keeping our heads down and staying the course,” he says. “If Guys were going to be our Monday show in the fall, maybe we’d have to reconsider. But given the low bar we and the other networks have set for ourselves on Fridays, if the show stays where it is, that’s okay for us.”
Beckman and ABC’s Bader are also both strong advocates of practicing patience with summer shows. After all, HBO’s True Blood premiered in late summer 2008 to barely 1.5 million viewers, grew to 3.7 million with its second season bow last June, and this year started off its third year with over 5 million viewers. “The longer you leave a show on, the more sampling it gets,” Bader says. “If there’s more buzz, if people hear about a show again and again, they might” check it out.
That’s why, despite the seemingly soft early numbers for the summer class of 2010, it won’t be a complete shocker if a show like the Scoundrels or Rookie Blue ends up returning for another season next summer. “This isn’t an experiment that’s going to go away,” Bader says. “This is just the start.” As Beckman puts it, “We aren’t going back.” And unless viewers prefer reruns of the canceled FlashForward, they might want to help them go forward.