Less than a month from today, the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics will take place in Rio, kicking off more than two weeks of pommel-horse and platform-dive action as well as, presumably, strong ratings for NBC. As has been tradition since 1992, the network started flexing its Summer Games muscles early in recent weeks by airing multiple hours of the Olympic trials in prime time, more this year than ever before. Already, viewers seem to have a case of Olympics fever. Sunday evening’s women’s gymnastics competition, complete with its Gabby Douglas balance-beam fall and reality-show-esque buildup to the announcement of this summer’s version of the Fierce Five, won the broadcast ratings race last night, attracting 8.3 million viewers to NBC. That doesn't match the 11.3 million people who watched the gymnastics trials back in 2000, the second-most-watched Olympic trial event in history next to the 1992 Dream Team–versus–Venezuela basketball match-up. But those are still strong numbers.
And they aren't surprising, since the Summer Olympics are always widely viewed; as a general rule, they tend to be a bigger television phenomenon than the winter incarnation. (The 2012 London Olympics attracted an average of 31.1 million viewers to NBC’s prime-time coverage, while the 2014 Winter Olympics, broadcast from Sochi, brought in an average of just 21.4 million viewers.) There are a lot of reasons why the Games and all its precursory coverage are so consistently popular every four years, but I think the main one is this: The broadcast of the Olympics represents the ultimate in what I call summer-vacation TV, a genre that, even beyond the hype about the upcoming events in Rio, is driving much of network television at the moment.
Summer-vacation TV is the kind of fun-and-games fare that’s unscripted, accessible (read: you don’t need to have binge-watched a previous season to understand what the hell’s going on), and — this is key — appropriate for viewers of all ages. These are the shows that pass the beach-house test: You can turn them on during that week at the shore with the family and feel confident that everyone, even the littlest, most impressionable kids, can happily watch. Put on the Olympics or the Olympic trials and suddenly everyone is sharing a moment. And unlike a shared moment of, say, Game of Thrones, no one has to rush little Liam out of the room because Ramsay Bolton is about to feed a baby to a pack of wild dogs.
The networks, especially NBC and ABC, have placed a heavier emphasis this season on programs that pass the beach-house test, slotting in shows like America’s Got Talent, which has owned audiences for NBC during the high-humidity months for the past decade; American Ninja Warrior and its new, hard-core obstacle-course cousin, Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge; the Fox mainstay So You Think You Can Dance, whose
season ends tonight string of live shows featuring the final contestants starts tonight; and, over on ABC, an entire suite of throwback, hit-the-buzzer programming that includes The $100,000 Pyramid, Celebrity Family Feud, Match Game, and Greatest Hits, the music-nostalgia-fest that plays like a combo platter of Solid Gold, Behind the Music, and Lip Sync Battle. (Highly rated favorites like The Bachelorette and CBS’s Big Brother, while unscripted and light enough to go down cool and easy at the end of a 95-degree day, don’t quite qualify as summer-vacation TV. At least in my view, they’re not quite family-friendly enough to make the cut.)
As broadcast TV ratings in recent weeks indicate, those summer-vacation TV blocks are paying off in terms of viewership. America’s Got Talent, as usual, has been the No. 1 show in the country for the past couple of weeks, while many of the other aforementioned programs — including the ABC game shows, American Ninja Warrior, and the Olympic trials — have ranked high on the list of most-watched broadcast programs, both overall and in the coveted 18-to-49 age demographic. Even PBS is following this model, airing the third season of The Great British Baking Show in the summer for the first time this year. While national viewership numbers for the episodes that have aired so far were not available, a PBS rep said that streams of this season’s premiere were up 213 percent over the second-season premiere last fall. Surely word of mouth has something to do with that. But I’d also argue that summer just feels like a better time to invest in finding out how someone’s biscotti is going to turn out.
Granted, it’s not like summer is the only season when mainstream reality shows and sporting events dominate. NFL football games and The Voice, just to name two examples, do quite well during non-swimsuit seasons. It’s also true that there are more fresh scripted series rolling out between Memorial Day and Labor Day than ever before, which means that no matter what the Nielsen ratings may say, plenty of people are too busy binge-watching Orange Is the New Black and Outlander to care whether America has talent.
But lately, as I have found myself getting sucked into gymnastic trials and episodes of Greatest Hits — the phrase “Coming up, we have a hot performance from Pitbull and REO Speedwagon!” should really make me change the channel, yet it somehow has the opposite effect — I find myself thinking that summer-vacation TV may be good for the soul.
Those of us who take our television seriously — critics and, presumably, most Vulture readers — tend to focus a lot of time on keeping up with all the buzzy prestige comedies and dramas that keep multiplying like Emmy Award–worthy bunnies. We’re constantly cranking our way through series, trying to stay on top of things in the Time of Too Much TV. We make lists of the shows we’ve been meaning to catch up on and binge-watch them into the wee hours so that the next time someone asks if we’ve seen the most recent season of The Americans, we can say, “Yes, I have. Now please sit down, because we obviously need to talk about Martha.”
Obviously having too many great shows to watch is a first-world problem that ranks slightly behind “I have to park my fifth Tesla in the driveway because it won’t fit in my four-car garage.” Still: My point is that watching TV is an act that, these days, requires a lot of planning, focus, and intellectual engagement. I think that is not just a great thing, but the greatest thing. But I also think that sometimes we need a break from that. And summer — that season when (some) offices close early on Fridays, and everything smells vaguely of cocoa butter, and things slow down because it’s too hot to go any faaaaster — is an ideal time to take those breaks from, yes, even TV. These is definitely a time for Mr. Robot. But there is also a time to watch Mario Cantone give clues in a category called “Daters Gonna Date” on The $100,000 Pyramid.
The other thing about summer-vacation TV is that, as I implied earlier, it has a way of making television a collective experience, something that’s becoming rarer not just culturally, but even within the same household. With so many digital devices in reach and everyone’s viewing agendas on different tracks, it’s become even easier for roommates and family members to retreat to their various corners and privately binge whatever they’d like. But when the HD TV in the living room is tuned to a game show or a bake-off or, the ultimate in summer-vacation programming, the Olympics, there’s a better chance we’ll all turn our gazes to the same screen for a little while and actually watch together. Given the divisiveness we’ve seen in this country in recent weeks, that’s not just a nice thing. It feels like a necessary thing.