WASHINGTON (CNS) — Now that Memorial Day is in the rearview mirror, the TV industry is still looking for ways to lure viewers to the tube. Or the flat-screen, as it were.
So here’s a brief tutorial in media literacy to explain why we see what we see on TV in the summer, when viewing levels are lower than at other times of the year.
In TV’s early years, what passed for a summer “season” was taking the best episodes of the fall season’s shows and rerunning them. Back then, the networks churned out episode after episode of their shows each season for 30-plus weeks with barely time for a breather. This meant the cream of the crop could be culled for the summer. But even shows that had gotten canceled would be rerun until the new season started in September.
Eventually, the number of new episodes started getting cut back to trim expenses. It got to the point where each new episode got rerun at least once — if not during the summer, then during other low-viewing periods of the regular season, such as the period surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day. Now, 22 episodes constitute a full season in the networks’ eyes, and they’ll avoid pitting fresh episodes of their series against “event” programming like the Grammy Awards or the Super Bowl.
Variety shows (like those hosted by Dean Martin and Carol Burnett) often spawned summertime replacements that hewed to the spirit of the show they were filling in for, like “The Golddiggers” for Dean Martin.
The networks also used the summer to float series that could be considered as a midseason replacement if the ratings were high enough and one of its regular fall shows showed signs of slippage. One of the most successful examples of this in the 20th century was “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” which took the place of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS and ran for four seasons. The brothers Smothers had their show canceled the following season, albeit over censorship tussles with the network rather than ratings woes, but Campbell returned to the airwaves with his variety show, which was more in keeping with the network’s — and sponsors’ — tastes.
The most successful summer show of our current century has to be Fox’s “American Idol,” whose ratings increased week after week during its summer tryout and became a phenomenon that only this year showed signs of being anything less than a ratings powerhouse.
Showing reruns is not only cheaper than producing new episodes, but it gives viewers a chance to sample a show they might have missed. In the 1990s, two NBC mainstays grabbed the brass ring of popularity thanks to first-season summer reruns: “Friends,” which ultimately ran 10 seasons and became a No. 1 ratings hit, and “The West Wing,” which enjoyed a seven-season run.
But when there were only three commercial broadcast networks, there wasn’t much to do if you didn’t want to watch reruns. But as cable channels came into being and started counterprogramming — presenting original series of their own at times when network reruns would be airing — the networks have had to fight back somehow.
Their counterstrategy has led to networks taking a chance on “reality” series like CBS’ “Big Brother” or competitions like Fox’ “So You Think You Can Dance” that are cheaper to make than scripted dramas or sitcoms. They also rely more during the summer on prime-time quasi-news shows like CBS’ “48 Hours Mysteries,” trying to wring more content from a news division they’re already paying for.
Networks still produce new series specifically for the summer, although they might have originally aired on Canadian TV and sold to a U.S. network. They’ll also take episodes of a series already canceled earlier in the year and put them on the schedule if they had never aired — a practice called “burning off” in the TV industry — all for the bragging rights of saying they’ve got new programming.
But, it’s summertime and since viewing levels are lower, there’s no law that says you have to watch what any network airs.
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Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.