The major television networks for decades hung out the equivalent of a "Gone fishin' " sign in the summer, simply running repeats of their regular season fare until new shows and fresh episodes returned come fall.
In recent years, that strategy has all but invited viewers, especially younger ones, to sample alternatives on cable networks instead. So, faced with growing criticism and falling ratings, and following the success of summer-bred shows like "American Idol" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," the major networks this year have responded with a wave of new unscripted programs since Memorial Day.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Summer television -- A sub-headline in Tuesday's Calendar section mistakenly stated that television networks are airing repeats of mid-range shows as part of a bid to hold on to viewers through the summer. The article states, however, that many such shows have been temporarily removed to make way for programming alternatives.
Yet with the summer season more than half over and no new breakout hits emerging, executives are divided on how much is too much, and just how productive it is to disrupt schedules by benching shows that need to build momentum as September nears.
This summer has most notably reflected a strategic shift by NBC, which just a few years ago sought to entice people to watch repeats with a promotional campaign titled "It's New to You," suggesting that reruns were still fresh if viewers hadn't seen them. Instead, the network has benched many of its mid-range shows to provide an original alternative.
"What people have failed to recognize is the move to 52 weeks a year [of original programming] is here, it's happened," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "It isn't an evolution, it's a revolution.... Those who are wringing their hands are playing the old game."
Yet take the case of NBC's "Boomtown," a critically acclaimed drama that drew so-so ratings its first year. In order to blossom in the fall, it could've benefited from extra time in the spotlight before facing stiff competition when the new TV season starts in September. Still, those who might be looking haven't found the show on NBC this summer; instead, the network licensed the reruns to TNT, making room for a wave of staged reality fare like "For Love or Money" and "Crime & Punishment."
That didn't sit well with John Merrill of Seattle, a self-described "frustrated NBC viewer" who can't find programs he usually watches -- including "The West Wing," "Boomtown" and "American Dreams" -- since the May sweeps ended and NBC "slipped into an all-'Law & Order'/'Dateline'/reality schedule."
In general, having more original programs appears to be working, helping stem the erosion networks have seen in recent years. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are averaging 28.4 million viewers at any given moment in prime time, a shade ahead of a year ago. And 13 million of those viewers fall into the 18 to 49 age demographic advertisers seek.
Nevertheless, the top-rated programs this summer have largely been reruns -- particularly procedural crime shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Law & Order," which offer self-contained episodes. Similarly, CBS' first-year drama "Without a Trace" has been easily surpassing reruns of NBC's "ER." According to CBS, more than 25 million people have watched the missing-persons show this summer who hadn't before -- with network executives hoping some of them like what they see and make the switch permanently.
"There's a positive impact to keeping these shows out in front of the public during the summer and generating some additional sampling," said David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president of research and planning. "There's a history of programs that have opened their second year at a higher level."
ABC is also citing the value in airing reruns -- in part out of necessity, since the network wanted to marshal its resources toward September. Executives are encouraged by research data indicating almost a fifth of those watching its sitcom "According to Jim" this summer haven't viewed the show before.
With time-period competitor "Frasier" heading into its last year, ABC thinks it can convert some of these viewers into steady customers. Larry Hyams, ABC's vice president of audience analysis, said an examination of last summer shows that between 11% and 14% of those who sampled its programs became regular viewers in the fall.
As for this summer's original programming, he said, "there are so many reality shows on, and they're all so similar to each other, nothing is breaking through. It's like news magazines a few years ago."
Another issue involves on-air promotional time -- still the networks' best tool for selling their own lineups. With new shows to introduce, many of those spots go toward advertising what's on that week instead of alerting audiences to the fall schedule.
Zucker said NBC's unscripted programs are getting more people to watch the network, meaning promos during those shows are more widely seen. As for people sampling reruns, he said, a network has to "balance the amount of low ratings you can tolerate" against the potential benefit of new viewers sampling a show.