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April 23, 2014

How to Fix TV: The Summer Season Situation

by Jason Hughes, posted Jul 6th 2010 6:30PM
'Rookie Blue'Sometimes it takes someone outside of a situation to really see what's not working, and come up with ways to fix it. Since I'm not a television executive, I can objectively look at what they're doing each season as a fan, instead of someone who's getting paid way too much money to decide how long the 'American Idol' results show should be each week.

For the past few years, the networks have been trying to create a "summer season" of original programming. While they've found some success with reality shows like 'Wipeout' and 'So You Think You Can Dance,' true year-round programming still remains an elusive dream.

Programming a few reality shows, burning off failed fall entries and launching the occasional scripted series that aren't strong enough for your real season isn't the way to make it happen. You need to create a revolution!

But how to do it?

THE FIRST SWING

In any revolution, one needs to radically change the way we think. For decades, summer was the time when the networks threw on reruns, and we watched them because no one had invented the Internet yet. In recent years there have been way too many distractions for that to work, so they started giving us cheap reality fare. It's only summer, after all, they figured. No reason to spend the kind of budget you see on a fall show.

But now ABC is running ads touting their "Summer Season" -- even launching several new scripted series -- to try to convince us that they mean business this year. But how are we supposed to take all of these great new scripted programs seriously when the networks are inundating us with ads during them for their new fall lineup, and none of these shows are on it? Where's that show of faith?

When you treat your summer series as second-class citizens, your audience thinks of them as your B-listers. We figure these are the shows you sunk money into, so you're looking for some kind of return on your investment. You don't want to take up any of the precious real estate in the seasons that matter, so why not burn them off in the summer along with the last episodes of your other failed series from the fall?

If the networks don't think of the summer as a real season, then neither will we. It's time to show us how serious you are about the summer. If you program it, we will watch. Cable has proven that by dominating the summer season for years now with their own scripted shows. It's time the networks stepped up to the plate.

All it takes is one brave soul to schedule one hit series in the summer season to change everything. Imagine if CBS announced that 'CSI: Miami' was going to premiere its next season in May 2011, running through September. The cases, set in the Florida summer, would be sexier than ever and fans of David Caruso would be scrambling to figure out what happened.

Change doesn't happen overnight, and CBS can expect 'CSI: Miami' to take a hit in the ratings at first. But loyal fans will find it, and still want to watch it. With the continuing growth of DVRs in the viewing population, the distraction of all those summer outdoor activities becomes less of a factor.

SPREAD OUT

Once the gauntlet has been thrown, it's time to spread out the rest of that lineup. No longer should we be shackled to the September through May television season. It's impractical to spread a 22-episode season across nine months anyway, and the antiquated reasons behind that schedule no longer apply. The truth is, the networks have unprecedented freedom to program their shows whenever they want to.

Fox took a bold step several years ago when they decided to hold '24' until January so they could air the entire season uninterrupted. Traditionalists gasped, certain it would never work, and yet the move made the show more successful than ever. 'Lost' took it a step further by setting an end date for their series and reducing the number of episodes per season to 18.

Who said it takes 22 episodes a year to tell a season story? Why spread 22 episodes across nearly twice as many weeks? It's time to abandon this archaic system, and adopt a four season approach.

1) The Fall Season - Mid-August through mid-November.
2) The Holiday Season - Mid-November through mid-January
3) The Winter Season - Mid-January through mid-June
4) The Summer Season - Mid-June through mid-August

Summer and fall are great for procedurals, most sitcoms and other lighter fare. Many of these shows could be broadcast across both seasons. There could also be fall premieres of shows that will be broken into two scheduled pods; half in the summer and half in the fall. Integrating series across the seasons will help the audience to think of this as a 365-day schedule.

The holidays are when people start to lose their focus completely, so this shorter season is when you trot out all those holiday specials, as well as high profile mini-series and other short-form programming. It's time America embraced the beauty of a tight 6-10 episode limited series.

The winter season is our longest uninterrupted stretch, and thus the best time to reach your viewers on a regular and consistent basis. The weather has many of them at home far more often than the other seasons, so this is the time to hit them with serialized programming and other dense and complex television series. By the time spring rolls around, you've got them hooked already by your long-form masterpiece.

SLOW DOWN

The biggest mistake the networks are making now in regards to the summer season is dismissing it before it happens. They announced their fall schedules at the upfronts in May, well before the summer season had begun. By trying to get us all hyped and excited about what's coming in September, we're already forgetting about what's on right now.

If 'Rookie Blue' is a breakout hit for ABC this summer, there's no room for it on that fall schedule. At best, it could come back as a midseason replacement when something else fails. But if that momentum is now, then ABC needs to be able to capitalize on it immediately by parking it next to 'Castle' to see what it can do.

There's no reason September's lineup needs to be known in May. Networks need the flexibility to make decisions to nurture succeeding summer series in the fall without having to rewrite everything. Let us know what shows are coming, sure, but hold off on locking up that schedule when you've got new shows that might just break out this summer.

I'm not saying these things are what TV will do, but I am saying it's what they probably should do.


What do you think: How can the networks fix summer TV?


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11 Comments

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Michael

Some excellent points are made here by everyone.I'm frustrated with the networks taking Saturday nights off during the fall/winter/spring TV season.Once upon a time when I was growing up they actually scheduled TV shows to first air that night.Now they simply offer repeats of their shows that were just shown earlier in the week.

July 07 2010 at 5:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chris

Agreed with above. And obviously this writer isn't even reading the posts on their own website about great shows during the summer like Psych, burn notice, true blood, rescue me, etc. Another example of a post that is so narrow in focus like so many on this website that are out of touch with the things going on around them.

July 07 2010 at 4:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rahul

the cable networks i think have realized the lack of strong summer offerings from network and have made that their main season. USA has made this work amazingly for them, as has AMC and HBO.

July 07 2010 at 1:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
izikavazo

Don't make new stuff in the summer, just have reruns. I'd rather just have everyone catch up on the "good" shows.

July 07 2010 at 12:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ryan

I, for one, like to have some time off in the summer. Maybe it's just a TV addict in me talking. So I'm okay with having less stuff to watch in the summer.

July 07 2010 at 12:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alison

You had me until the "Slow Down" section. You are not understanding the financial realities of TV. They have to do the upfronts - they sell 1/3 of their adtime then. And they can't postpone the beginnings of production for the next season.

July 06 2010 at 10:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BC McKinney

You seem to be arguing that summer should be treated seriously as a separate season by the networks, while simultaneously arguing that successful summer series should be moved to the fall season to capitalize on that success. WTF?

One problem with moving the schedules of existing series to the summer is that the talent are accustomed to taking their vacations during nice weather in the northern hemisphere, whether that be family time off, or scoring a film role.

July 06 2010 at 9:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jimmy_MO

The problem is, all the major networks are beholden to the 18-49 demo and in the summer that group isn't watching a lot of TV. Looks at any of the summer series ratings and you'll see abysmal 18-49 ratings. Cable shows can get by with lower 18-49 demos because they aren't dependent solely on advertising dollars.

July 06 2010 at 8:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Jimmy_MO's comment
LoopyChew

Isn't it a chicken/egg situation, though? The summer season has traditionally been treated as rerun central, so of course ratings will be down. And they'll probably be down the first couple of years as people are adapting to the concept of summer seasons. However, as time goes by and people are adapted to the idea, the ratings will grow.

The problem here is like people who try to pour water into a cup slowly--if you don't commit to it to a fairly substantial degree, most of the water will miss the cup and dribble down the pitcher and onto your clothing anyway. Networks who decide to half-heartedly attempt "original programming" and just shove in any random crap will see bad ratings (perhaps even worse than reruns of their more successful shows) and assume it's the summer schedule, not even considering the notion that it's' due to bad programming.

DVD collections are making reruns and syndication significantly less useful (though not completely ousting their usefulness); adapting accordingly by designing year-long original programming isn't a bad idea by any stretch of the imagination. And the idea of short seasons is also one I approve of; this could cut filler out of some shows.

July 07 2010 at 6:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jimmy_MO

Those are good points. Another thing to consider is retransmission fees. If the networks continue to pressure their affilitates to fork over a portion of the retrans fees they get for cable and satellite to air local channels their reliance on advertising would lessen and possibly give them more courage to changes things up.

July 07 2010 at 9:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Xina

From your keyboard to...someone's ears...Flashpoint is considered what? A summer filler? But it is easily one of the best shows on CBS. Yet, because it's in on in the summer, it doesn't get its due.

July 06 2010 at 6:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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