With '24,' 'Extant,' 'Night Shift' And 'Rising Star,' The Broadcasters Finally Take A Shot At Summer

As far as broadcast television is concerned, this seems to be the summer that everyone has been waiting for, because for the first time in memory, and perhaps ever, each of the Big Four networks has programming of substance -- that is, programming that would fit very nicely into their September-May schedules -- running at various times and in different durations throughout June, July and August.

Way back in the late Eighties and early Nineties -- before basic cable, digital media and streaming services became the mighty collective and competitive forces that they are today -- the broadcasters’ historic tendency to fill the summer months with repeats, burn-offs of failed pilots and unaired episodes of flop series was often cited as the reason why they were slowly losing some of their audience year-to-year. As was often said at the time, the networks were known to hang up “Gone Fishing” signs at the close of the May sweeps period and were then stunned when not all of their previous season audience showed up the following September eager to consume whatever they were offering.

Of course, CBS in 1990 took a shot with a bold experiment in summer programming -- the hour-long comedy “Northern Exposure,” which premiered in July of that year. It was so successful that the network in 1991 moved it right onto its midseason schedule. That was the beginning of many successful in-season years for that show, an original episode of which was never again seen during the summer months.

The success of “Northern Exposure” prompted some interest in original summer fare at the other broadcasters, but none of them really stepped forward except for Fox, which in 1991 and 1992 served up special summer seasons of its still young prime-time soap “90210.” Prior to the 1991 summer run the show hadn’t been performing very well, but after that first summer blast it soared to the top of the 18-34 and 18-49 demographics when it returned the following fall.

And still the broadcasters continued to dither as far as developing scripted summer programming was concerned. It wasn’t until ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” came along in August 1999 that summer once again enticed them. Summer hits “Survivor” and “Big Brother” kicked off on CBS the following year. “Survivor” -- like “Millionaire” before it -- was quickly relegated to in-season status, while “Brother” has remained a summer staple ever since. Fox’s mighty “American Idol” followed in the summer of 2002 and ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in the summer of 2005. They were two instant megahits that also were instantly removed from summer rotation.

It became increasingly clear during those years that the broadcasters would never really be serious about original summer fare until they began running significant programs during June, July and August. In recent years only NBC has stayed true to course, keeping the hit “America’s Got Talent” in the summer and enjoying tremendous success with it, not only as a show that keeps the network alive between May and September but as a promotional platform for the new fall shows to come.

Then along came CBS’ “Under the Dome” last summer and suddenly everything changed. The broadcasters are now attacking their summer schedules with a previously unseen gusto.

In addition to the return of “Big Brother,” which seems to maintain a robust fan base, CBS this summer has the second season of “Dome” and the first season of what looks to be one of the highest profile new dramas of the year, “Extant,” starring Halle Berry.

NBC has “AGT,” a talent competition that seems not to lose steam as its judges come and go, perhaps because its producers know how to keep the show focused on its contestants, and also because it only runs for one cycle per year, and “American Ninja Warrior,” a perfect summer diversion that can be as much fun as watching certain Olympic events. NBC also seems to have an unexpected scripted success in the medical drama “The Night Shift.” If its early ratings hold up, and a second season is ordered, NBC would be wise to keep it in the summer, the way ABC has made “Rookie Blue” a summer fixture. Next up on NBC is the intriguing scripted effort “Welcome to Sweden.”

Fox has fresh seasons of the always reliable (if a little bit tired) “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Master Chef.” It also has an original drama series, “Gang Related,” that feels like a series the network deliberately chose to burn off during the summer months. But the biggest news of the summer has been Fox’s decision to run a new, shortened season of one of its former foundation shows, “24,” in May, June and early July. This show deserves a column of its own, but for now I’ll simply say that it is playing like a perfect summer thriller, and it is already far more satisfying than the last two seasons of its original run.

ABC has its summer staple, “The Bachelorette,” which may not be all that exciting but certainly keeps the network at the forefront of the media, because dozens of print and Internet outlets can’t get enough of the guys and gals who participate in both “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” The network is also offering a smattering of scripted fare (including “Rookie Blue” and “Mistresses”) that comes with modest expectations and, beginning June 22, a new interactive talent competition titled “Rising Star” hosted by Josh Groban that could prove to be the next new summer reality smash. (It’s been a while since we’ve had one.)

The CW also deserves mention in this column, because it is still running new episodes of its midseason success “The 100” (something I bet it will not do next summer) and tonight will debut a new reality show titled “Famous in 12” that under the right circumstances (and with the right media support) could be a renewable summer resource. It chronicles the efforts of a family that relocates to Los Angeles with the sole intent of becoming famous as quickly as possible. In other words, it is hurriedly pursuing the new American dream and expects instant gratification. It won’t surprise me if there is an audience for that.    

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