TV gets real
For decades, summertime was the time for TV reruns. If you missed a few episodes of your favorite network sitcom in fall/spring, you could catch them in July. Or you could go out and play Frisbee. But these days—what with the proliferation of new cable TV stations and broadcast networks expending extra effort to create original summertime programming—reruns are hardly the hot topic. September is fast approaching, and summer is almost gone. We’re just weeks away from the debut of the fall 2011 TV season. What better time to ask the question, “What have we been watching all summer?” I’ll give you one big hint: There ain’t a lot of scripts involved.
NBC started out strong with the Stanley Cup finals back in June, but the network’s ratings petered out over the course of the summer with no decent follow-through until the start of preseason football. NBC’s only other ratings-grabber of the summer has been “America’s Got Talent.” It’s a weekly chart-topper, but it’s not enough to lift the network out of a virtual three-way tie for the bottom. ABC, NBC and CBS all averaged a measly 1.3 weekly Nielsen rating this summer. (A single ratings point represents one percent of the total viewing public, or about 1.1 million people.) ABC’s “The Bachelorette” gave the network a major seasonal hit, while “Wipeout” rounded out the top 10 for most of the summer. FOX gave ABC a run for its money, with the two networks trading the best ratings in the 18-49 demographic most nights. (Although the difference was frequently less than 10,000 viewers.) The double shot of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “MasterChef” helped FOX score solid ratings most of the summer. FOX also got good numbers for its run of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Interestingly, FOX managed to squeeze out the only scripted TV series to pop into the top 10 over the summer months: occasional repeats of “Family Guy.” Airing “Big Brother” three nights a week gave CBS its only respectable ratings presence over summer. A new season of “60 Minutes,” though, is giving the Eye network a late-season boost.
Cable is a different story. Or not. The season debut of HBO’s vampire drama “True Blood” surged to the top of the charts, landing higher ratings than a lot of network shows. Since the show’s fourth season premiere, however, ratings have leveled off, making room in the top spot for the current No. 1, MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers,” along with A&E’s “Storage Wars,” frequently topped the summer charts, proving cable’s love for “junk buying” shows. MTV’s “Teen Mom” and Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” are the other reality shows consistently meeting-or-exceeding cable’s magic 1.4 ratings (representing a respectable 3 million or so viewers). WWE over on USA was usually strong enough to wrestle its way into the weekly top 10. Although they were in the serious minority, scripted cable shows like “Burn Notice,” “Suits” and “Royal Pains” (USA) and “Rizzoli & Isles,” “The Closer” and “Falling Skies” (TNT) managed to get bigger ratings than a lot of network fare like “Friends With Benefits” or “Love Bites” (both dead from the summer heat over on NBC).