The Hot Season

Summer viewing, beach ball throwing, barbecuing, and myth-busting 

Picture the typical summer TV viewer: too much barbecuing, too much Frisbee throwing, too much beach going, and  according to consumer researchers  too much myth-believing.

As legend has it, the summer is the traditional time for TV programmers to take a break, because viewers are doing all those things that take them away from television: vacationing, frolicking at the beach, and presumably gazing into space.

Viewers, in fact, are gazing  at TV screens. They're still watching plenty of TV, just a little less than in the fall, spring, and winter. In actual numbers, about 8 to 10 percent less.

"It's not like it plummets from other quarters of the year," says Judy Vogel, U.S. director of media research and communication in-sights for OMD USA. "Summer isn't all that different from spring in some parts of the u.s."

"There has been this perception that we are all outside throwing beach balls," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Homes Using Television (huts) levels have increased from 52 percent to 55 percent from mid-May to mid-June. This may not seem like much, but these data are significant, say researchers, because huts typically move slowly. Thompson and others say increasing use of new portable video devices could narrow that 8-10 percent drop to within 5 percent in a couple of years.

It's not just the technology, though. For the last several years, TV viewing in the summer has grown, mostly due to content changes at the broadcast networks, and, starting in the 1990s, from their cable cousins.

Starting in 1999, the networks forced people to put down their volleyballs and Long Island Iced Teas and head indoors by offering compelling TV programming. In successive summer periods, starting in the summer of 1999, there was "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," "Fear Factor," "Survivor," "American Idol," and last year, "Dancing With the Stars," all of which brought back viewers to the set. This year "So You Think You Can Dance," a second-year Fox summer reality show, is the new reality leader thus far.

The TV Magnet

Consumer behavior could also be changing with respect to entertainment choices like movies and DVDs.

Russ Crupnick, vice president and analyst at NPD Group, says current DVD sales are at a 100 index in June  100 representing the average DVD sales activity across an entire year. DVD rentals are slightly lower in June, at a 96 index.

That's the good news. The rest of the summer activity for DVDs typically plummets, dipping in August to an 85 index for DVD sales, and a 70 index for rentals. By comparison, December's activity reaches a monthly high of 149 for DVD purchases and a 215 index for DVD rentals.

Recent reports, however, show that DVD sales are slowing. New summer TV shows may be the reason.

"People committed to DVDs are still committed to DVDs," Crupnick says. "But as you get into the ninth year [of this growing market], the low-hanging fruit becomes higher."

Theatrical movie attendance has also suffered in recent years, down some double digits in recent years. Overall box office revenue isn't on the same path. This year it's up some 4 percent, but analysts say escalating average ticket prices are making up for declines in attendance.

Improved network and cable television programming could be the reason some competing entertainment is suffering, say some media industry researchers. TV is generally low-cost entertainment, even as cable monthly service bills have increased over the last few years.

Some 20 new network shows and 50 new cable shows will make their way to TV screens this summer. All but one of the 20 network shows is a reality show. NBC's new drama "Windfall" has earned surprising mid-3.0 ratings with 18- to 49-year-old viewers  a modest success for the summer viewing period.

Since the early 1990s, cable has used the summer as a launching pad for new shows, as well as for returning shows. Cable shows continue to perform well during the summer. Take TNT's "The Closer," for example, which pulled in a record-breaking 8.3 million viewers for its second season premiere on June 13, making it basic cable's top scripted series telecast ever, according to Nielsen Media Research. The previous record holder was USA Network's "The 4400," which drew 7.4 million to its premiere in July 2004.

TNT's new drama "Saved," which features Tom Everett Scott as a paramedic, premiered to a healthy 5.1 million total viewers, and 2.1 million adults ages 18 to 49. "The 4400" opened its third season strongly, attracting 4.2 million total viewers and 2.4 million in the 18-to-49 segment.

ABC Family's new "Kyle XY" doubled its viewership numbers in a June run on the ABC broadcast network, averaging 5.2 million viewers. On ABC Family, four days before, the show had pulled in 2.6 million viewers. It has become the best-rated scripted programming ever for ABC Family. The replay on ABC increased the show's adult 18-49 rating by nearly 80 percent to a 1.6 rating.

Syndication generally doesn't offer as much new programming, but industry proponents say so far this summer, four of the Top 10 shows among adults 18 to 49 were syndicated programs. Syndicated programming typically gets most of its viewers in the early evening.

For overall TV viewing, Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research for Lifetime Television, says: "If you break down the viewing levels by hour, the greatest drop is in the early evening. But by the time you get to 9 or 10 p.m., there is no drop-off. Viewing levels are as high as ever."

Summer Wind

So how did summer get the reputation for mass tune-out? Brooks, a industry historian, says that in the 1950s and '60s, TV was full of live programming during most times of the year, including the summer. But typically the summer live shows were fronted by "B"-level actors. Name talents like Milton Berle went on vacation  literally.

"Actors like Jack Benny would say in their season finales, 'See you in the fall,'" Brooks says. This reminded people to come back, but it also sent the message that second-rate summer TV shows were on the way.

Though current TV programming activity grows each year, Brooks doesn't think summer will reach equity with other seasons.

"I doubt the summer will ever be equal to winter," he maintains. "Maybe there'll be a 5 percent difference." Nielsen Media Research's plan to measure TV and video in more and more places, such as in colleges, in hotel rooms, and on portable devices, will help, he says.

Increasingly, networks need to monetize every available season, time period, and program. Add to this new TV technologies, as well as marketers' increasing penchant to place new advertising dollars wherever consumers are. All these trends spell more value in summer TV viewing.

"We buy 52 weeks a year; there are no seasons for us," says Tim Hanlon, senior vice president of content at Publicis Groupe's Denuo unit, speaking on behalf of his clients. "The fall season doesn't necessary mesh with marketers' seasons. In another couple of years, it won't matter."