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The Big Losers (and Rare Winners) of Summer TV

Cruel summer, bummer summer, dog days of summer: Pick a cliché (any cliché!) and it probably serves as an apt description of just how awful the warm-weather months have been for most of the broadcast networks, and even a few of their cable brethren. Sure, NBC's Olympics coverage performed spectacularly well. But according to Nielsen, ABC, CBS, and Fox were all down by double digits in overall viewership between Memorial Day and Labor Day, while basic cable as a whole was down about 5 percent versus 2011. If you take out the London Games, even NBC ends up in negative territory. So what happened?

The broadcast networks, which used to spend their summer in a rerun haze, seemed to get serious about the so-called "off-season" about a decade ago. This was after cable started stealing away audiences with well-crafted scripted series, and unscripted shows such as Survivor and American Idol proved audiences could be lured back from the beach with compelling fare. But lately, the nets have gotten lazy about summer again, relying on reality warhorses that recycle the same tired production techniques each year (sorry, Big Brother) or trotting out allegedly "new" shows which are actually just copycats of bigger formats (that would be most of ABC's unscripted offerings this summer). With broadcasters seemingly uninterested in innovation, the result was almost predictable: Viewers grew uninterested in the nets. Cable, meanwhile, did a little better, but there are troublesome signs there, too. Vulture crunched the data from the season gone by and came up with a few lessons TV insiders might do well to learn if they want to avoid getting burned again next summer:

Harsh Reality

Apparently you can overdo it on guilty pleasures: Some of summer's biggest unscripted staples took a tumble this year, with viewers possibly growing weary of the same stale storytelling and reality show gimmicks. CBS's Big Brother, which had long defied ratings gravity, fell to 6.7 million weekly viewers, a drop of nearly 20 percent from last year. More disturbingly, Julie Chen's Circus of Cray-Cray has lost nearly a quarter of its under-50 viewership while collapsing 35 percent with those under 35 (older viewers are apparently a little more loyal). Meanwhile, over at NBC, adding Howard Stern didn't boost America's Got Talent: The variety contest is down 20 percent in overall viewership (11.3 million) and it's currently tracking about 18 percent down vs. last summer in the under-50 demo the Peacock prizes. Even watching folks fall flat on their butts doesn't hold the thrill it once did: ABC's Wipeout, a summer soldier that now seems to air year-round, has seen its Nielsen numbers take a punch in the gut, with overall viewership down 17 percent (and now below 6 million).

But it's not only the aging summer tentpoles that are sagging this year. The sophomore season of ABC's Bachelor Pad is so far down nearly 40 percent vs. summer 2011, while NBC's second year of Love in the Wild drew even fewer eyeballs than its disappointing-but-renewed-anyway first season. Likewise, a slew of new unscripted contenders unveiled this summer drew ratings that fall into one of two categories: "Flop" (Take Me Out, The Choice, Duets) and "Really Big Flop" (Glass House, 3, Dogs in the City). Considering how low everything sunk, it’s no wonder that Got Talent is still the most-watched weekly series on broadcast this summer, while Big Brother, despite being evicted from Nielsen's top ten, is still in the top twenty among viewers under 50. 

Not every network reality franchise had a bummer summer. Fox's Ramsay-riffic combo of the long-running Hell's Kitchen and the newer Masterchef did okay on Mondays and Tuesdays. The net's two weekly airings of Kitchen eased a mild 6 percent vs. 2011, while the double dose of Masterchef is up about 12 percent among viewers under 50. ABC's Bachelorette matched last summer's adults 18-49 rating and actually inched up 4 percent with viewers under 35. And while So You Think You Can Dance lost some of its pop culture buzz by shrinking to one night, the reduction seems to have been a wise move, with its viewer declines in the mid-single digits.

Whistlin' Dixie pays.

Starting with the ginormous tune-in for May's Hatfields & McCoys, it's been a southern-fried summer on cable. The six-hour History miniseries drew an average audience of roughly 17 million viewers for its three broadcasts, shattering cable records and underlining just how much of an audience there is for programming targeted at fly-over states. Not long after, TNT successfully resurrected Dallas; while its overall numbers aren't huge, it did well enough to end up among the five most-watched new cable shows this summer. Another top-five freshman: VH1's Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, which could end up the No. 1 new cable series this summer among viewers under 50. And then there's Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, which has been adding viewers since its debut last month and last week averaged about 3 million viewers (and, unlike the stats cited for most of the shows in this story, that number doesn't include a week's worth of DVR tune-in). The train wreck of a show is doing particularly well with women 18-34, last week outdrawing Fox's SYTYCD in that demo.  Can a reboot of Walker, Texas Ranger be far off? What if it gave Walker a grossly overweight sidekick with a kid who says the durndest things but whose future makes you anticipatorily sad? You’re welcome for the free idea, Hollywood!

USA! USA! TNT?

Despite a slow start, USA's roster of blue-sky dramas rallied by summer's end and allowed the network to claim cable's summer ratings crown for the seventh consecutive year. (Adding an extra hour of WWE on Mondays helped). But it was far from a blowout: USA's overall audience eroded by nearly 20 percent vs. 2011. And while vets such as Burn Notice and Suits continued to do solid business, USA's newcomers didn't do as well: Common Law barely made the list of the top ten new cable series of the summer, while Political Animals majorly struck out on Sundays. While USA sagged, arch-rival TNT surged this summer, with its prime-time ratings growing by nearly 10 percent. The network got a boost from the final season of The Closer, its spin-off Major Crimes, and its successful (if older-skewing, and slightly overhyped) reboot of Dallas. Sophomore sci-fi thriller Falling Skies also did very well with viewers under 50.

As a result of changing fortunes, the once-yawning summer ratings gap between USA and TNT has all but evaporated. Last year, USA's average prime-time audience of roughly 3.6 million viewers represented over 1 million more viewers than TNT's 2.5 million. This summer, with USA down to about 3 million viewers and TNT up to 2.8 million, the gap is down to around 250,000. The good news for USA is that it remains a year-round Nielsen powerhouse and still has more big scripted cable hits than any other network. But if TNT can keep up this summer's momentum, we could be on the verge of a major power shift in the cable world.

Cable is not immune from viewer erosion.

The honeymoon's over for cable. During the aughts (or whatever the hell we end up calling the first ten years of this century), cable's PR machine regularly cranked out press releases every year noting how its summertime originals — from USA's blue-sky dramedies to HBO's powerhouse Sex and the City — were stealing away market share from the broadcast nets. By 2002, the aggregate audience for the dozens of cable channels out there surpassed that of the broadcast nets, and it's generally kept growing since then. But as noted above, basic cable lost about 5 percent of its audience this summer vs. 2011. Broadcasters obviously didn't steal it back, so it's clear cablers are getting hit by some of the same things draining network audiences: Netflix, video on demand, DVRs.

It's also clear that as more and more nets jump into original programming (even The Weather Channel offers "reality" shows these days), cable has begun eating itself.  No wonder, then, that among viewers under 50, half of cable's ten biggest nets had down summers. In addition to USA's big declines, Discovery saw its ratings dive nearly 25 percent in the younger demo, while ABC Family was off about 16 percent and FX (even with the boost from Charlie Sheen's successful "comedy" Anger Management) saw its overall primetime ratings drop by 7 percent. MTV also got a preview of life sans Jersey Shore: Without the boost it got from GTL last summer, the network's numbers with folks under 50 plummeted by nearly 25 percent. Comedy Central and TLC also suffered double-digit demo declines. Still, cable shouldn't be underestimated: This summer, thanks to the massive tune-in for Hatfields & McCoys, cable's History network actually had a higher weekly Nielsen average than any of the broadcast networks. That's never happened before.

Oprah's back!

After enduring months of nitpicking from naysayers, Oprah Winfrey's OWN quietly perked up in the ratings this summer. Thanks in no small part to Winfrey's well-publicized interviews with newsmakers and celebs, the net's primetime audience surged by more than 20 percent in both overall viewers and in key demo groups. And in the demo group OWN says it's targeting most — women 25-54 — the channel is up nearly 35 percent. OWN is now a top 40 cable channel, with bigger ratings among viewers under 50 than established players such as Style, Hallmark, BBC American and CNN.

The Olympics are forever.

Bitch all you want about tape delays, but the fact is, viewers couldn't get enough of NBC's Olympics coverage. The Peacock's seventeen nights of already decided, heavily edited sports action drew more than 30 million viewers each night, up 12 percent from the 2008 Games and the best ratings for a non-U.S. Olympics since Montreal in 1976. Even in an era of DVRs and live streaming, old-school network TV proved it can still draw eyeballs better than any other media out there. #NBCWins.