For couch potatoes, summer no longer means drought. After decades of reruns and not-ready-for-prime-time programming, summer television is now something to look forward to.
The summer TV schedule has been evolving for years. In 1998, HBO debuted Sex and the City in June, instead of September, in order to avoid the fall crush of competition.
Sex and the City’s truncated first season (only 12 episodes rather than the typical 22), along with the ad-free atmosphere of premium cable, gave the series some breathing room to find its voice and audience.
Two summers later, Survivor became a surprise smash sensation, spawning a decade-plus of reality TV imitators. Survivor also proved that viewers had a thirst for new programming throughout the entire year and that advertisers would indeed pay to reach them.
Since Survivor’s debut in 2000, reality television has been ingrained in our entertainment culture, but CBS was taking a risk in airing new, original programming during the summer months.
Outside of live events like the Olympics, the summer months were traditionally sluggish in terms of ratings and buzz and advertisers were hesitant to pay much for ad space.
But CBS minimized its risk with a reality show, which is far cheaper to produce than a scripted series. In the end, Survivor creator Mark Burnett secured enough product placements to alleviate the production costs, rewarding contestants with food and beverages courtesy of brands such as Budweiser, Doritos and Mountain Dew.
Scripting the summer
While many cheaply produced – and heavily branded – reality series followed suit each summer on the broadcast networks (from American Idol to Big Brother to So You Think You Can Dance), new, quality, scripted programming was scarce and mostly limited to the more niche basic and premium cable networks.
This summer, some networks are branching out from their usual routines by offering new, scripted programming during the summer months. For instance, CBS premiered a 13-episode adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome on June 24.
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler told reporters that Under the Dome, created by comic book writer and former Lost producer Brian K. Vaughan, offers CBS “a unique opportunity to do a big summer event and to do a scripted series. [During the] summer, you have to make some noise, and we really wanted to this summer.”
Under the Dome’s debut episode was CBS’ best-rated summer premiere since Big Brother in 2000 and the second-highest-rated new series premiere among young-adult viewers of the entire 2012-2013 season.
While its numbers have declined slightly since the premiere, Dome still dominates in the Monday ratings against its competitors’ lineups, which consist mostly of – no surprise – reality shows.
But the summer is no longer just a testing ground for new programming. Premium cable network Showtime, for instance, has typically saved Dexter, its massively successful flagship series about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers, for the fall.
This year, looking for a good lead-in to push forward its new series Ray Donovan, starring Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight, Showtime premiered the eighth and final season of Dexter in June.
The plan worked. Dexter broke its own season premiere viewership records, debuting to 2.5 million viewers. Meanwhile, Ray Donovan was the most-watched original series premiere in Showtime history, with 1.4 million viewers (both series enjoyed additional viewers in repeats and on demand).
As the ratings for summer television rise, networks can attract advertisers all year long – and give TV addicts more reasons than ever to avoid the heat!