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December 20, 2014

TV just had its most-watched summer ever while the big four struggled

by Jason Hughes, posted Aug 27th 2009 9:02AM
Royal PainsWhat an interesting summer for television. In general, the claim that television viewing reached an all-time high this summer doesn't really surprise me. After all, we're in what the media tells us is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. That means more people out of work and less money for everybody.

People out of work and unable to find work are going to be bored, so they're going to watch television. People with less money are going to stay home more often, so they're going to watch television. That part makes sense to me. The part that is a little surprising, but only a little, is that all of that record viewing went to the cable networks and not the big four.

There was not a single break-out summer success story on ABC, CBS, NBC or FOX. Every single show they put on the air either crashed and burned, or barely stayed afloat. But the story is so very different on cable. Week after week we got new stories about original series breaking records on almost every network.

Warehouse 13, when you consider DVR viewership, is the highest rated show in the history of Syfy/Sci Fi. Royal Pains is far and away the breakout hit of the summer averaging more than seven million viewers. In contrast, ABC's Defying Gravity never reached four million. Even summer staples like The Closer and Burn Notice drew impressive numbers.

While it's easy to argue that their 7 million viewers don't stack up to network numbers in the fall and winter, they do stack up this summer. More importantly, they represent 4-7 million viewers who could have been watching the networks, but chose not to. And cable got those numbers with programming with much, much lower budgets than the big four.

With the economic factors still in effect, we may be looking at big viewership as the regular season gets under way as well, and I'll expect ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX will reap the benefits of that the most. Partially because the cables are going to wrap their season and get out of the way. But how many more years will they do that?

Plus, you have to give cable credit where credit's due. If you figure there are three seasons of television, then CBS won last fall, FOX took the winter, and cable collectively owned the summer. They've proven they can hang with the big boys, even if it is during the big boys' off-season. And the big networks did throw new programming at us. We just weren't having any of it.

The television landscape is changing. I'm not sure what it's changing into, but the tides are coming. Is The Jay Leno Show experiment a sign of it? Is summer after summer of record-breaking ratings on cable another sign? Is Paula Abdul leaving American Idol a sign? At least one of those questions is, I'm pretty sure, completely unrelated to anything.

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Maximum Red

Brian hits the nail right on the head. Commitment. But it's not just commitment to the show, but commitment (and courtesy) to their viewers. In their myopic view they equate numbers = viewer loyalty (or do they care?) Of all the recently cancelled shows I can only recall of one that had the viewer courtesy of finalizing a show: Pushing Daisies.
We have Soap Operas that regardless of how mediocre they are, have been around for 15+ years. Yet a decent show gets a 5 or 6 episode run and... too bad, didn't get the forecasted numbers! Sorry Joe/Jane Viewer, show's off!
Instant gratification (or perhaps "programmus interruptus") seems to be their motto. Thank goodness for reset buttons if any thing goes wrong (they think)!
I wish their was a Viewer organization with enough cloud, that would demmand (for a lack of a better term) that any show to be cancelled must tie all loose ends. Kind of like a Viewer Protection clause. How about rating them based on their "cancellation without an end" ratio? If they hit say a 5:1, then the carrier companies (cable, FiOs, etc) impose a monetary penalty for them to be able to air their products
The networks have the right to cancell any show they want, it is their business, but I firmly believe they should have a responsibility towards us viewers to treat us with consideration.
I will now step off my soap box...

September 26 2009 at 2:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
LadyOracle

You forgot about Leverage. In my opinion its the best summer show hands down.

Leverage has also been renewed for another season, just so you know.

August 27 2009 at 2:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Preston

I'm surprised that a lot of people watched this summer, even if the ratings didn't show. The cable networks were watched more than the broadcast networks. I liked NBC's Great American Road Trip with those families traveling on the RVs on the famous Route 66. It fit right with the mood of summer with families traveling on summer road trips. I watched 7 of the 8 shows. It was a fun summer series installment!

August 27 2009 at 1:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Pingles

I'd love to think that America is tiring of formulaic Dramas and Comedies but I think I'm giving TV viewers (like myself) too much credit.

I mean,. how many ER dramas can we have?!?!?

August 27 2009 at 11:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Pingles's comment
justelise

If formula shows were dying, there wouldn't be a bajillion Law and Orders and CSIs. Quite frankly I'm tired of spin-offs too.

The big networks need better writing, and they need to give a show a chance for the audience to find it before it gets canceled. Chuck and Big Bang Theory are moving in the right direction. Without more shows that are quirky and that effectively mix comedy and drama they will continue to lose viewers. The networks need to support Sci-Fi (it's no longer a niche).

What passed for funny 10 to 15 years ago (i.e., Friends and Seinfeld) would not survive in today's TV market, and the big networks really need to stop trying to recreate those shows (ESPECIALLY NBC).

August 27 2009 at 12:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
George

Cable has one clear advantage that the networks don't: multiple airings. If I've heard good things about, say, "Royal Pains" and want to check it out, it definitely helps that there's always a one-in-24 chance that it'll be on when I switch over to USA.

Hooking the torrent-savvy, Hulu-friendly, TiVo-owning crowd on your new drama is pretty easy -- they'll find it on their own. The trick is snaring the 60-something grandma who thinks her 15-button TV remote is too complicated. In that case, there's no substitute for showing every new episode 19 times.

August 27 2009 at 11:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to George's comment
segsig

The good for cable ratings for these shows, are they the initial screenings or do they combine multiple showings?

August 28 2009 at 11:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brian

There's also a commitment factor... SciFi probably would have given a full season run to Warehouse 13 regardless of how it performed, whereas the same series on Fox may not have lasted 4 episodes. I'm willing to start watching a new series on cable more readily, knowing that there's a bigger chance it will stick around. Imagine if Journeyman or Life on Mars had been a SciFi or USA show -- might still be kicking. By comparison, Monk or Psych likely never would have seen their sophomore years, yet both are in seasons 5+ on cable. If the Big 4 want us back, they need to make solid commitments to their products. So far, we have encouraging signs on shows like Better Off Ted and Dollhouse. But, is this the exception or the forthcoming rule?

August 27 2009 at 9:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Brian's comment
mike

Which is exactly why I never bothered watching "Defying Gravity". I should be a prime candidate for liking this show but given the big 4's commitment to sci-fi I had zero confidence that the show would last past week 2.

August 27 2009 at 11:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Janie

I have to say, Mike, that while I fear your statement about Defying Gravity is true, I have watched it and enjoyed it. I agree that the big 4 need to commit to tv shows now. it's terribly frustrating to get into a show and then have it yanked the following week, ie. Kings, which I loved.

August 28 2009 at 12:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Vince

Maybe if the 'Big-4' did more real shows as opposed to 'reality' shows, they'd do better.

August 27 2009 at 9:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Vince's comment
Michelle

Ditto!

August 27 2009 at 9:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alicia R.

Couldn't agree with you more.

August 27 2009 at 5:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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