Friday, May 27, 2011

Hooray for Summer Television!

Ads for the seventh season of "Futurama" have started appearing ahead of my online streams of "The Daily Show" on the Comedy Central website. The highly anticipated fourth season of AMC's "Breaking Bad" is due a couple of weeks after that. "White Collar" and "Burn Notice" will be back on USA, "Louie" and the last season of "Rescue Me" will be on FX, and every Sookie Stackhouse fan will have their eyes glued to the new season of "True Blood" on HBO. As for me, I'm keen to see if the new "Torchwood" miniseries, which has hopped continents and landed on Starz, can possibly top the last one. Yes, all of our favorite summer television series are back, and there are a couple of interesting new ones premiering too, like "Alphas" on SyFy and "Wilfred" on FX. How on earth did we ever get along without them?

I still remember those boring media summers of yore when you simply did not get any decent new television content to watch between the May sweeps finales and the season premieres in September or October. You went to the movies because that was the only place to find anything worth watching. You joined the library summer reading program if you were a nerd like me. Occasionally a network might burn off the episodes of a canceled series, or air a show it had paid for but decided wasn't good enough for the regular season, but the only time I ever remember being excited for summer television programming as a kid was when the Summer Olympics rolled around. Summer was vacation season for everyone, even our favorite characters on the tube.

But not anymore. These days, summer television is no longer only for reruns and castoffs. Cable especially has embraced year-round programming schedules, because it isn't so beholden to the Nielsen ratings system, which is what the network schedules are built around. Why does all the good stuff air in November, February, and May? Because that's when viewing data is collected, which helps to set the the networks' future ad rates. Cable programming is less sensitive to ratings because it works on a different revenue model that is less viewer-dependent, so you're not ever likely to see a new series canceled after only two or three episodes because audiences don't take to immediately. Content can be more niche and feature riskier material. A season can run for only twelve or thirteen episodes, instead of the usual 22-26, and the breaks between seasons can be longer. Summer regular "Mad Men," for instance, had its fourth season finale back in October of 2010, and won't be back until 2012.

It makes sense for cable series to run new episodes during the summer, because that's when the network shows are on hiatus, and there's less competition for eyeballs. In fact some cable shows have been so successful that they've started siphoning significant viewership away from the broadcast networks. So now, in order to compete, all the non-cable networks have a show or three that comes back every summer, usually cheap reality programming like "Wipeout," "So You Think You Can Dance," and "Big Brother." These are also necessary because of the new prevalence of reality competition shows, which are not typically rerun because everyone already knows the results. Something has to take their slots on the schedule during the summer months. And every so often, one of those summers shows does so well, that it gets bumped up into the regular season. Few may remember, but ratings winners "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" both started out as limited summer series. In the hopes of finding their next big hit, the networks have taken to testing out a few unusual and daring series during the summer, and seeing what sticks. It may not be the greatest original programming, but it's a significant step up.

There's every reason to think we'll see the shift continue toward shorter seasons, looser schedules, and more interesting television premiering during the summer months. Viewership of the major networks has significantly decreased as television watching habits have changed. It's accepted wisdom that the better programs are mostly on cable due to fewer creative restraints and more ambitious programmers. We're also seeing new content distributors like DirecTV and Netflix starting to move in. A big test this summer will be the performance of "Damages," which DirecTV saved from cancellation and will broadcast exclusively on its 101 Network. We can expect that DirecTV will follow the cable model due to its subscription business models. Can it be long before the broadcast networks follow suit too, simply in order to stay relevant?

Insert "Must See TV" joke here.

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