Summer Original Season Begins Immediately
Less than a week after the May sweeps (and traditional 2002-03 broadcast season) concluded, the broadcast networks are coming back with new programming that will be heavy on reality and low on repeats. It's the networks' attempt to show advertisers and agencies that it can compete with cable and, in at least one network's case, create excitement for a fall schedule that won't run in October because of baseball.
"The new summer season begins almost immediately," said Jeff Zucker, president of entertainment at NBC, during last week's end-of-season conference call with reporters. The network will be debuting six series in the next two weeks, all reality. There will be game shows (Dog Eat Dog), talent contests (Fame with Debbie Allen) and unscripted dramas (Crime and Punishment), including a couple that ran successfully last summer.
There's no secret why the networks, after decades of taking the warmer months off, have discovered the summer: They've seen their ratings slide while cable takes more and more of the audience with original programming. They don't want that to happen again.
"We're trying to stem that erosion to cable going on and keep the base a little higher for fall," Zucker said. He said that research provides evidence that the audiences do return in the fall "but if you start at a higher base you're better off." CBS and ABC are also planning shows in the season.
Fox was the surprise winner in both the February and May sweeps and came close to toppling NBC in adults 18-49. Fox Chairman Sandy Grushow and Entertainment President Gail Berman hinted that it would have been a different story if Fox hadn't lost precious time in the fall running postseason baseball. They also have long said that they weren't going to cede the monthlong advantage any more.
"I think the key is to avoid stumbling out of the gate in the fourth quarter following postseason baseball. That's obviously been our challenge and we're hopeful that we can avoid spotting the competition a big lead because clearly we know we're going to come back very strongly in January with the premiere of American Idol 3," said Grushow. Fox's strategy: Premiere some of its new shows in the summer and "keep the lights on" by running at least one new series. At its upfront presentation earlier this month, Berman showed a trailer for its 24 place-filler, a comedic drama about an American cop who works with police in London. She said that it would be an effective way of keeping 24's audience interested. And another drama, The O.C., is going to begin in July. Both The OC and Keen Eddie were heavily promoted near the end of the season, including the finale of American Idol.
"We'll be rolling out programming throughout the summer," Grushow said.
NBC used the final weeks of the season to promote its summer schedule, which Zucker acknowledged was a different programming environment. Three of the shows are returns from last summer, including Crime and Punishment, Meet My Folks and Dog Eat Dog. Fame and For Love or Money are new. Zucker said that the returning shows have a built-in recognizability that will hopefully drive new viewership on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
"We're hoping that those will help launch Last Comic Standing," said Zucker.
CBS has a mix of new and returning programs for the summer, highlighted by the soon-to-arrive Big Brother 4. Charlie Lawrence and Baby Bob will both return during the summer too. And CBS hopes that a little of the American Idol magic will fall on its summer schedule with the debut in July of Cupid, a Bachelorette-style show that is developed by the producers of American Idol and is hosted by American Idol judge Simon Cowell.
Zucker, whose one reality show on the 2003-04 schedule is Fear Factor, said that overall, advertisers have said they prefer quality scripted programming over reality. He said reality was here to stay but that there was an over-reliance on it for the past year or so. "There is some successful reality programming," Zucker said, noting his own network's Fear Factor along with American Idol and Survivor. "But I don't think it will be [in the 2003-04 season] to the degree that it has been."