Sunday, June 02, 2002

Networks load the summer with reality light

        So you don't like summer reruns, do you? The TV networks have heard you, though some of the new summer low-budget “reality” series may make you flip back to summer repeats of Friends, Frasier or C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation.

        The summer slate starting today includes a little bit of everything — cheesy relationship shows (Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska); exploitative shock shows (Spy TV, Dog Eat Dog); talent searches; game show revivals (Let's Make a Deal); contrived psuedo-reality situations (Celebrity Bootcamp); returns of shows from months on “hiatus” (The Mole II: The Next Betrayal) and some serious narrative journalism (Boston 24/7; Houston Medical).

        You'll find everything but quality, big-budget dramas or sitcoms. Northern Exposure and Seinfeld, which both aired in the summer of 1990, were truly anomalies.

        Instead, network executives are banking on viewers flocking back to “reality” shows, as they did the past two summers for Survivor and Fear Factor. Surprisingly strong ratings for a couple of spring reality shows indicate that we might be ready again for escapist, light-weight relationship shows that were rejected immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        ABC's spring The Bachelor ranked No. 42 this season, after Fox's fall Temptation Island 2 plummeted to No. 125. And the January-May run for NBC's Fear Factor finished No. 23 this season, averaging a bigger audience that Malcolm in the Middle, The Practice, NYPD Blue and CBS' Sunday movie.

Lots of sports

        At least the networks recognize the problem and are attempting to address it. More than 40 percent of the Fox and NBC summer schedule will be original programming, if you count sporting events like the NBA playoffs, NHL Stanley Cup finals, baseball's All-Star Game, the July 6 NASCAR PEPSI 400 and preseason NFL games.

        “Broadcasters for some time now have realized that closing the door for summer is a thing of the past. It's getting harder and harder to bring back viewers in the fall,” says Sandy Grushow, Fox Entertainment chairman.

        That's why NBC is the most aggressive this summer. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker believes that strong ratings last summer for Fear Factor, Weakest Link and Spy TV propelled his network into first place for the TV season that ended May 22.

        “One of the keys to our success this season is we were able to keep the lights on last summer in a way our competitors did not,” Mr. Zucker told TV critics in a recent conference call.

        It provided a double bonus to NBC: Strong ratings for summer “reality” series meant that more viewers saw promotions for NBC's new fall series.

        “Obviously our success last summer is something everybody saw and will try to emulate this summer,” Mr. Zucker says.

Troubles at ABC

        The big four broadcast networks experienced a 7 percent ratings drop last season. The combined audience share for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox fell from 51 percent in 2000-01 to 47 percent in 2001-02, says David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president for research and planning. (When you add UPN and WB, the combined share falls from 59 percent a year ago to 55 percent.)

        But those numbers don't tell the whole story of audience erosion. NBC, thanks to the Winter Olympics, finished the season up 17 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. CBS for the first time finished second in the 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet.

        Fox was third in that key demographic, while ABC tumbled into fourth place. ABC's ratings “sank more than 20 percent from year-ago levels — the steepest year-to-year decrease in network history,” the Times reported.

        “It was a case of two networks having a very good year, and two networks having a very bad year,” Mr. Poltrack says.

The high road

        Even the two networks on the slide — Fox and ABC — have opted for vastly different summer plans. Fox won't “burn off” unseen episodes of Dana Delany's Pasadena canceled in October, or some other failed series. But ABC has brought back the short-lived 8:30 Eastern/9:30 Central TV industry satire under a new name, My Adventures in Television (9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Channels 9, 2).

        ABC has elected to take the high road, investing in day-in-the-life news documentaries like Barbara Kopple's Hamptons (9 p.m. today, Channels 9, 2) and Boston 24/7 (10 p.m. Tuesday).

        Fox again goes for the lowest common denominator with Celebrity Bootcamp (no debut announced) and Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska (9 p.m. today, Channels 19, 45).

        Then there's CBS. It will follow a second-place finish this season with three Big Brother 3 episodes a week starting in July, and prime-time broadcasts of The Price is Right.

        In other words, you'll see lots of reruns on CBS — which might not be a bad thing, after watching Bachelorettes in Alaska.

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