Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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The rise of summer TV shows

June 15, 2015

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America's Got Talent courtesy nbc.com

In the past decade, summer television has gone from a time when networks burned off episodes of a show they’d pulled earlier in the year, to a full-blown “season” where fresh shows are required in order to stay competitive.

Long gone are the days where the big networks could just air nearly three months of reruns and maybe a handful of offbeat shows they weren’t sure should make the actual fall lineup. (Check out this schedule from 1992 to see just how barren the summer landscape really was.)

As Vulture pointed out this month, summer shows that are successful on the major television networks tend to be soapy in nature. People who want more serious fare usually turn to cable nets for alternative options.

The long-running Beverly Hills, 90210 cashed in on its soapiness back in the early 1990s when it took advantage of rerun season and drew in its loyal young audience by airing new episodes filled with Dylan/Brenda/Kelly love triangle by airing new episodes in July and August.

This was in a pre-DVR, pre-binge-watching time and long before most networks and audiences had embraced the concept of year-round viewing.

Recent successful shows that have launched in the summer are The O.C. (another teen angst filled drama), which got its start in August, and Mistresses, which is is back for its third season starting this week.

The other scripted genre that fares well in the warm months, are series that have an ongoing mystery. While a show like Hannibal (that originally aired during the traditional TV season) is having trouble finding its footing, new series The Whispers (focusing on kids with not-so-imaginary friends) is performing solidly and besting numbers of Mistresses from 2014.

And CBS hit it big with the show Under the Dome (based on a Stephen King story) which drew 11 million viewers last summer, and the eerie Extant (which stars Halle Berry as a scientist who is readjusting to earth life after time in outer space), which drew in close to 9 million. Both CBS hits will be back this summer.

But by far the genre that rules this time of year is reality television. Love or hate unscripted programming, this genre is around to stay. Survivor and American Idol which have both run more than  a decade both debuted during the summer.

And then there are shows like America’s Got Talent, Big Brother and So You Think You Can Dance which are summer staples. AGT (now in its 10th season) brings in an average of 10 million viewers a week.

NBC’s American Ninja Warrior landed in second place just this this past week with close to 7 million people tuning in to see who would make it up the warped wall, and just beat out The Bachelorette which drew in 6.37 million viewers last week. 

New shows like The Astronauts Wives Club hope to capture the same attention or audiences, but while it does have a soapy appeal, its period look may be more than network viewers may want to invest in.

Or at least that was the case for Swingtown, which tried to recapture the mid-70s key party era, and was cancelled after just one season when its ratings dropped from 6.7 million to an average of under 4 million in the course of a few weeks.

The bigger breakout this year may be CBS’s Zoo, which taps into a fear of animals suddenly attacking for no reason and is based on a James Patterson novel. The show has the luxury of airing on CBS, which will naturally promo during current hits Under the Dome, Extant and during the multiple airings a week of Big Brother.

STORY IDEAS

What Should a Summer Show Be?

American Idol finally losing steam

Dancing with the Stars shows signs of aging

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