Summer Sizzlers

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If it's fashionable to don white until Labor Day, then maybe broadcast-network executives have an excuse if they want to wave a flag of that color this month.

With four weeks to go until summer's unofficial end, broadcast networks are surrendering viewers to cable in record numbers.

Through June and July, almost 62% of television-viewing households were watching basic-cable programs in primetime, according to a Lifetime Television analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

That's up from a 61.1 share from June through August of 2005, the first time cable cracked the 60-share barrier during the warm-weather months.

The summer didn't start that badly for the seven broadcast networks. In June, 61.2% of households watched basic-cable networks in primetime, compared to 32.5% for the broadcasters. Last summer, the over-the-air networks earned a 32.0 share, according to Lifetime's records.

But the heat got turned up in July, according to Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks. For the first time, cable doubled broadcast's primetime share: 62.5 to 30.2.

“This continues cable's summertime climb. There's been an almost 10-point share gain, from a 53 in 2002,” Brooks said.

In fact, three of the four lowest weeks ever for broadcast were recorded last month, said Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag.

A lack of breakout hits on broadcast networks and cable's breadth of original programming accounted for the difference. Major cable networks will launch 50 new series from June through August, Brooks estimated, including Lifetime's Angela's Eyes, which has attracted an average of 2 million viewers through its first three episodes. By comparison, broadcasters will launch 20 new series.

And returning series also are pulling away viewers.

“Each year, there are more and better cable shows,” said Wakshlag, noting that the second season of cable's top-rated show The Closer has provided a good lead-in for new paramedic series Saved.

The summer has become a very valuable launch period for cable networks. “There are a lot of opportunities for cable,” according to Bonnie Hammer, president and general manager of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel.

Those networks account for seven of the top 10 shows in basic cable among adults aged 25 to 54, she noted. That roster includes record-producing newcomers Psych on USA and Eureka on Sci Fi, but also encompasses new seasons of The Dead Zone, The 4400, Monk, Stargate SG-1 and spinoff Stargate Atlantis.

The only new show to even make it into the top 10 most-watched broadcast shows is the Wednesday-night edition of NBC's America's Got Talent, according to Wakshlag.

Broadcast advocate group Television Bureau of Advertising thinks talk about cable's summer heat is overblown.

“The same pattern holds true in summer as during the regular season. Viewers don't watch aggregates, they watch shows and when it comes to the top 100, subscription TV only places a few each month,” said TVB spokesman Gary Belis.

He points out that among households, adult 18-49 and 25-54 metrics, only four cable shows ranked among the top 100 ad-supported shows during July.

With cable networks introducing one-third of their new shows and “no Olympics in sight, cable could hit a 63 share” this month, in Brooks's estimation.

A&E Network executive vice president and general manager Bob DeBitetto said he believes cable can score during the, er, dog days because most of the broadcast networks are still “lying low.”

“Sure, you're a little nervous because new episodes can start to run up against the new [broadcast] season [in September], but you have to be competitive. Otherwise, it's a wasted opportunity.”

A&E is rolling out reality series Gene Simmons Family Jewels on Aug. 7 and will premiere a special wedding episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter the following night.

Interest in the family life of the KISS bassist; his wife, former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed; and their kid aside, here are some of the hits (and a few misses) driving cable's sizzling summer thus far: