Cover Story: 120-Plus In The Shade

6/07/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

For years, cable networks have been soaking up the hot ratings of the summer programming season as they took advantage of broadcast TV's programming slumber.

This summer, the industry will lay the sunscreen on thick as cable networks will debut more than 120 shows over next 12 weeks.

But with so many shows looking to draw new eyeballs — and with increasing competition from other video-entertainment platforms — there's a growing concern the summer TV season is getting more crowded than New York's Jones Beach in August.

Cover story June 8, 2009To combat the summer programming glut, some networks are stepping up marketing and promotional efforts.

Other networks have chosen not to put all of their programming eggs in the summer basket and have begun to launch some of its popular shows during other times of the year to give them more scheduling flexibility and to open up more opportunities for viewer sampling.

Still, there's no question from a ratings and viewership perspective, summer provides the biggest sizzle for cable networks. Last summer, cable networks averaged a 60 primetime share of all television households, more than doubling the broadcast networks' 30 household share despite record-setting viewership numbers for NBC's 2008 Summer Olympics coverage, according to Nielsen Media Research figures.

Michael Phelps' record-setting Olympic gold medal-winning swimming performance may have helped the broadcast networks increase its 2008 summer primetime household ratings by 12% to a 17, but he and the rest of the Olympians could barely cut into cable's 34 summer rating, which was down only 1% from 2007.

Given cable's lineup of summer shows — particularly with the return of major blockbuster shows like TNT's The Closer, which averaged more than 8 million viewers during its 2008 summer run — TV historian Tim Brooks believes that cable will easily match or surpass the record 63 household share it set in 2007 for the period.

“If you trace cable's share last summer, excluding the Summer Olympics, cable was performing at record levels,” he said. “Cable should return to those levels this summer.”

Cable networks are debuting more and more shows to take advantage of the broadcasters' decision to air mostly repeat programming during the summer months. Over the next three months cable networks will launch more than 120 scripted and reality series, according to Multichannel News research.

While that's on par with last summer, it's three times the 40 original series that premiered during the months of June, July and August in 2004. It's also a lot of marketing noise and clutter to cut through even with the broadcast networks on hiatus, according to network executives. Increasingly, cable networks have also scheduled return seasons of originals in the summer months (see page 11).

Too Much Clutter?

“On one hand you can applaud programmers for wanting to give viewers original content and shows [during the summer],” said Comcast Entertainment Group CEO Ted Harbert. “But on the other hand, I don't want to waste the money of Comcast shareholders by putting on shows that there's no opportunity for viewers to watch.”

Nevertheless, Comcast-owned E! will launch several series this summer including Kendra, a spinoff from the network's popular The Girls Next Door, and Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, featuring two sisters from E!'s Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

“For E!, the summer is a better time for us than most — we have a lot of kids coming home from college that are E! viewers,” he said. “This is our fall — there are a lot of people who come home and expect us to put on new programming in the summer.”

Harbert would not venture a ratings projection for the two series, but said viewers' familiarity with Kendra Wilkinson and the Kardashian sisters from their previous shows should help create all-important sampling of the shows. Still, the network isn't taking any chances: it's rolling out an extensive, multiplatform marketing effort to get the word out on the shows.

“You have to step up marketing efforts, especially because people's attention is diverted in so many different directions,” he said. “I don't take anything for granted.”

Other networks are hoping the appeal of returning shows and the star power of marquee celebrities will make their content stand out amongst the summer programming surplus.

For the third year in a row, Lifetime will tap June as the launching pad for its breakout drama Army Wives. The show, about the lives of military families living on-base, has established a beachhead in the month: its 2007 freshman campaign averaged a network record 3.6 million viewers, which was topped by an more impressive 3.7 million viewers during its sophomore run, according to the network.

Lifetime executive vice president of entertainment JoAnn Alfano attributed the series' year-to-year viewership increase to the show's strong storyline as well as the show's established yearly June schedule return.

“The competition can be more steep [in the summer], but at the same time it's at a place where cable can plant a flag and premiere really good shows,” said Alfano, who added that the network will also launch a new scripted series, Drop Dead Diva, and that hit reality series Project Runway will make its long-anticipated move to Lifetime from Bravo this summer.

“The shows that are really good will shine through — we proved that with Army Wives, which was up in viewership despite the competition and despite being a sophomore show.”

TNT also hopes to take advantage of the position its established in June for the launch of The Closer to continue that show's unprecedented audience success. Entering its fifth season, the Kyra Sedgwick-starrer is averaging a cable record 7.1 million viewers.

“It's a competitive landscape out there, but I still right now love that we can premiere all these shows in the summer, because we've been successful there for a couple of years now,” said Michael Wright, executive vice president, head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies. “I believe that the TNT audience has become accustomed to seeing The Closer in June and Saving Grace in July, so that's where we go.”

The network is also hoping to leverage the success of its returning series to promote new summer entries such as the medial drama HawthoRNe, starring Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the police procedural Dark Blue, featuring Dylan McDermott. Wright added it also doesn't hurt to have such top star power to help drive sampling of the shows.

“Talent like a Jada Pinkett-Smith and a Dylan McDermott on their own won't make a show a hit, but they can help it get sampled in the very competitive environment that we're in,” he said.

What About Fall?

What also helps networks like TNT is the fact that summer — while a perfect time to launch series — isn't the only season networks are looking to accrue viewers. Wright said the network is increasingly launching new content during December as well as during the summer to cultivate viewers throughout the year.

This past December the “drama” network successfully launched its freshman courtroom series Leverage, which drew 3.9 million viewers up against first-run shows from the broadcast networks. While not abandoning summer, Wright said the network would employ a year-round strategy in an effort to attract more viewers for its numerous series.

“The schedule that's evolving for us is more two seasons for originals, and then you'll get more encores of originals to keep them alive in the public's eye in-between those two periods,” he said.

Sci Fi Channel also refuses to depend on the summer to draw the lion's share of its viewers, according to executive vice president of programming and original movies Thomas Vitale. While the network this July (in concert with its new Syfy moniker) will bow Warehouse 13, its newest series, last year the network chose October rather than the summer to debut its freshman, space-tinged drama Sanctuary and its popular reality series Ghost Hunters in an effort to entice viewers to sample new content outside of the summer months.

As a result, October became the most watched month of the year for the network, averaging more than 1.4 million viewers. That bested the 1.3 million that watched the network on average from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. during the summer when the network premiered new episodes of its supernatural dramedy Eureka, among other originals

The network also isn't afraid to go head to head with the broadcasters: Vitale said the network successfully aired the final episodes of its breakout hit Battlestar Galactica in the teeth of the broadcasters' February sweeps period. Next year, Syfy will test the pre-summer waters with the debut of its Battlestar prequel, Caprica, in early 2010.

“If you're going back 10 to 12 years, summer was our focus for launching originals, but we now focus on the entire year,” Vitale said. “From a promotional and marketing point of view it's a lot easier to keep the momentum going when you have original programming in your schedule all year long. One event and one original program on the schedule leads to the next one … you can't do that if you're only premiering shows during the summer.”

Top 20 most-watched primetime summer series in 2008:

Show Network P2+ Viewers (000s)*
*Average for all original episodes aired during the period of 5/26/08-8/31/08.
Source: Disney-ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research
The CloserTNT8336
Burn NoticeUSA5843
WWE Raw (10 p.m.)USA5332
In Plain SightUSA5326
Saving GraceTNT5167
WWE Raw (9 p.m.)USA5023
Law & Order: C I (original)USA4994
Project RunwayBravo3928
Secret Life of the American TeenagerABC Family3818
Army WivesLifetime3749
Top ChefBravo3422
House of PayneTBS3319
EurekaSci Fi3223
Wizards of Waverly PlaceDisney3187
House of PayneTBS3073
The Bill Engvall ShowTBS2578
Shot at LoveMTV2550
Real WorldMTV2497

Still, given the phenomenal ratings success cable has had during the summer, its unlikely you'll see many cable network programming executives abandoning the summer programming beach anytime soon, regardless of how crowded it may get.

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