Bravo this month will debut its first original miniseries, The
Count of Monte Cristo, a $20 million extravaganza starring Gerard Depardieu.
The network, with so much invested in this co-production,
had its reasons for setting a summer premiere date for the programming event, which airs
June 21 to 24.
"For Bravo, it's an epic miniseries: Eight hours over
four nights," Bravo general manager Ed Carroll said. "A miniseries of that scale
asks for a fairly significant viewing commitment So we wanted to stay clear of the
broadcast sweeps and all the season-ending finales."
Bravo isn't the only cable network that's saved some of its
new premium original programming for the summer. For the past few years now, the summer
has become cable's new "season" -- the period when it trots out its new shows.
Last summer, cable was so successful with new original fare that it attracted viewers in
droves, and actually lifted overall TV viewing across the board.
For this June through August, the Cabletelevision
Advertising Bureau last week predicted primetime viewership of basic cable will hit new
summertime heights. It projected that for the first time ever, cable will surpass the Big
Four broadcasters -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- in all collective audience measures:
households, ratings and share.
Cable's summer strategy is to lure channel surfers when the
broadcast networks have "gone fishing" and are airing reruns until the new
broadcast season kicks off in the fall, usually September.
"Summer is still a great opportunity for us,"
said Scot Safon, Turner Network Television's senior vice president of marketing.
"Because of the reruns that broadcast airs, the audience is a little bit more up for
grabs. The audience will show up for something worthy of their attention."
Last summer, ad-supported cable networks premiered 28 new
series, compared with broadcast's seven new shows, according to Betsy Frank, executive
vice president of research and development for MTV Networks Inc. And this summer, cable
networks have lined up what may be an even more expansive slate of original programming to
premiere from June through August.
"This will be the most aggressive summer we have had
in terms of cable," said Robert Sieber, Turner's vice president of audience
Said Safon: "It is definitely daunting when you look
at the lineup cable has to offer."
Turner Network Television, Comedy Central, TBS
Superstation, MTV: Music Television, Lifetime Television, The History Channel, FX, Food
Network, Home & Garden Television, American Movie Classics, Travel Channel, USA
Network, Nickelodeon and Showtime are among the many cable networks that will introduce
new series this summer.
And Comedy, Showtime and Home Box Office make up just a
partial list of the programmers that will debut new episodes of returning series in the
summer months. In addition, a wide variety of cable networks have waited until the summer
to air their new original made-for-TV movies and miniseries, including A&E Network,
VH1, USA, TNT and TBS.
The conventional wisdom about summer is that household
viewership drops, as people spend more time outdoors or go on vacation. But last year's
numbers, with cable's help, defied conventional wisdom. In summer 1998, primetime
Households Using Television [HUT] levels were up 2 percent, to 52 million, an increase of
1.2 million homes compared with summer 1997, according to Turner Entertainment Research
from Nielsen Media Research data.
And that increase in homes came from cable, not broadcast.
Basic cable's primetime delivery increased 16 percent last summer, to 23 million from 19.8
million, or up 3.2 million homes. In contrast, the Big Four's delivery dropped 5 percent,
to 22.7 million from 23.2 million, or down 1.2 million. Last summer, cable gained three
times as many households as broadcast lost, Sieber said.
"What's really happening is that basic cable, and to
some extent pay, is pushing up the total viewing levels," he said.
More people are watching cable in the summer now "as a
result of the heavy programming muscle put by cable into that quarter," said Tim
Brooks, USA Networks' senior vice president of research.
And this summer, the CAB forecasts basic cable's primetime
viewership will soar by 2 million households compared with last year, taking it to 25.1
million. The CAB projected the Big Four will lose 1.8 million homes this summer, dropping
to 22.3 million.
There are several reasons contributing to cable's big
summer viewership gains, Frank said. One of those factors especially boosts MTV: Music
Television and Nickelodeon: Youths and children are out of school, so they have more time
for TV and can stay up later. Nick's and MTV's target audiences are therefore more
available in the summer, according to Frank.
So it's not a surprise that cable's summer viewership keeps
rising, said Frank, due to the "confluence of repeats on broadcast, the greater
availability of the key audiences that watch younger-skewing networks and more original
programming on cable."
ORIGINALS BLOOM IN JUNE
According to Brooks, cable viewing really begins to pick up
in the second half of June, several weeks after the May sweep ends.
"Mid-June is when viewers are beginning to swarm into
cable," he said. "So when the tide is coming in your direction, you want
That's why Brooks' research department advises USA and The
Sci-Fi Channel that late June is the "optimal time" to debut a new show, with
the next best option coming after the Fourth of July. In fact, Sci-Fi next year plans to
debut Taken, its $40 million, 20-hour miniseries from Steven Spielberg, during the
summer. It will air over 10 nights, and is already being billed as one of the biggest
events in TV history.
Showtime likes to launch new series in the early summer,
according to Mark Zakarin, executive vice president of original programming.
"The reality is that the best soil to plant a new
series in is the summer," he said. "You get maximum attention from the audience
and maximum attention from the press. After the May sweep ends, that disenfranchised
audience wants something new. And then you have the full summer to get them in the habit
of watching your show."
Bravo's Carroll agreed, pointing out that his network often
averages a 0.4 primetime rating in the summer, up from its usual 0.3.
"The summer months offer a chance to shake viewers
from their regular viewing habits," he said.
Showtime debuted two series last summer, Linc's and Rude
Awakening. Both are returning with new episodes this summer. This year, the network
will debut two other key original series, Beggarsand Choosers and The
Hoop Life, on June 19 and July 4, respectively.
"We got great results last summer launching two new
series," Zakarin said.
And Showtime has two other big-event projects that will air
this summer: a six-hour miniseries on mobster Joe Bonanno, from July 25 to 26, and its
six-part In the 20th Century, which kicks off June 14.
There are different reasons why networks decide to premiere
a show earlier, or later, in the summer.
For example, Bravo opted to debut The Count in June,
rather than July or August, because that date fit into sponsors' media-budget timetable.
"June is still the second quarter, and we had a couple
of blue-chip advertisers -- Lexus and [the] U.S. Postal [Service] -- that were interested
in tying in to this event," Carroll said.
Showtime delayed The Hoop Life's debut until July to
make sure its premiere didn't coincide with the National Basketball Association playoffs,
Comedy Central premiered Vs. on May 31, rather than
during its full premiere week in mid-June, to take advantage of viewers who would be home
and spend Memorial Day weekend promoting the show's host, Greg Proops, said Eileen Katz,
executive vice president of programming.
At A&E, senior vice president of programming Michael
Cascio agreed that in the summer, "there's a large audience of television viewers
looking for new and different things."
As for A&E's summer scheduling game plan, Cascio said:
"Some of it is just gut feeling and some is trial and error We do look at HUT
levels. But it's not an exact science. Some of it has to do with spreading things
Last summer, A&E scored a big rating for its Biography
special on Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. This summer, A&E is premiering several of its
original movies in the summer.
"You do it a time when people will notice,"
Small Vices, a made-for-TV movie based on the Robert B.
Parker bestseller and starring Joe Mantegna, will air July 18.
A&E is also premiering a Biography special on
Beach Boys member Brian Wilson , which "was timed to the summer," Cascio said.
The History Channel, A&E's sister service, has a number
of specials planned that are tied to historical events, including a July 4 marathon on the
American Revolution, according to Abbe Raven, History's senior vice president of
History is also kicking off four new series in August.
"Part of that is a function of production," Raven
A five-hour miniseries entitled The History of Sex
will air over five days, kicking off Aug. 16. That miniseries was scheduled for the summer
because "people have a bit more time" then to sit down for a consecutive series,
according to Raven.
FOR TNT, SUMMER SIZZLES
TNT has been hot on summer premieres since 1994, when it
debuted Gettysburg in June and got "huge numbers," Safon said. In 1997,
another TNT historical film, Rough Riders, also fared well in the summer, Safon
Based on that strong track record with historical
programming in the summer, TNT scheduled The Hunley, about the first submarine ever
used for battle in the Civil War, for July 11, Safon said.
In contrast, Safon said Pirates of Silicon Valley,
about the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, would do well at any time of the
year. It's set for June 20.
"It's timing was motivated purely by the fact that it
was ready to go," Safon said.
In fact, Pirates had first been slated to air in May, but
that's when the NBA playoffs were scheduled.
"So we moved Pirates to June, out of harm's
way," Safon said.
TNT has slated it's 13-part limited series Crusade
for the summer so it can complete its run doing that period and will be "out of the
way of the onslaught premieres" in the fall, according to Safon.
VH1 is just getting into the production of made-for-TV
movies and plans to debut its first offering this summer. Jeff Gaspin, VH1's senior vice
president of programming, said that timing was a function of production schedules.
"I wanted to give myself as much time as
possible," he said.
Although Gaspin conceded that "summer is great for
cable, there are certainly months throughout the year that are just as great."
For example, this past April was VH1's highest-rated month
ever, he pointed out.
"I've actually pushed some stuff away from summer, to
have more even ratings throughout the year," Gaspin said.
Cable's ratings strength last summer flowed into the fall,
and cable executives expect the same thing to happen this year.
"Last summer, a lot of people got into the habit
watching shows on cable," Frank said. "And once you [broadcasters] lose viewers,
it's much harder to get them back."