What we did on summer vacation

AND THEN, the audience parted.

Here’s what has happened to TV viewing this summer: People who want reality shows have stuck with the broadcast networks. Viewers who prefer scripted series have migrated to the cable channels. And in terms of ratings, the once-vast gap between the two worlds is shrinking like never before.

That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. Consider this statistic: Four of the top five shows on network TV so far this summer are reality programs, including the No. 1 series, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” according to Nielsen Media Research. Meanwhile, eight out of the 10 most-watched programs on ad-supported cable are scripted dramas.

The top-rated series on cable, TNT’s crime procedural “The Closer,” has drawn an average of 7.4 million total viewers since its Season 4 premiere on July 14. That number, although a bit low to be called a major hit by broadcast standards, is higher than any big network’s average prime-time audience this summer, despite the fact that TNT is available in fewer U.S. homes than its broadcast competitors.

“There’s more good television this summer than there has been in years past,” Michael Wright, senior vice president at Turner Entertainment Networks, said in a telephone interview. Wright oversees programming for TNT, TBS and other channels.

The aggressive foray into scripted programming has led to a renaissance for basic-cable networks such as NBC Universal’s USA, the top-rated prime-time cable network with five current original series including “Burn Notice” and the new “In Plain Sight.” The benefits have even filtered down, on a much smaller scale, to AMC, which logged record ratings last month for the Season 2 return of the Emmy-nominated ad-industry drama “Mad Men.” ABC Family is having its best results ever for an original series with the teen-pregnancy drama “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”


“I think network is going to take a page from the cablers and start developing scripted for summer as well,” Bonnie Hammer, who runs USA and Sci-Fi for NBC Universal, told me. “I don’t think they will be able to get along over the next several years without going toe to toe with us in the summer.”

In fact, broadcast executives, seeing the strong ratings that cable posted last summer with series like “The Closer” and premieres such as FX’s thriller “Damages,” probably would have mounted a stronger challenge this year on the scripted front. But the three-month writers strike got in the way. By the time the walkout ended in February, networks were so busy scrambling to finish their regular seasons and prepare for fall that there wasn’t time to worry about a summer strategy.

Sticking with unscripted series has had its advantages. ABC, Fox and NBC each have at least one reality hit, and each has more viewers this summer than last. ABC found a modest breakthrough with the obstacle-course game “Wipeout,” the summer’s No. 1 new show, averaging 13 million viewers. Returning reality shows, especially Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” remain popular among young adults, the audience segment most-sought by advertisers.

Broadcast executives point out that cable still benefits from a double standard. Preston Beckman, Fox’s scheduling guru, cites the example of CBS’ racy ‘70s drama “Swingtown,” which won critical acclaim but has drawn disappointing ratings.

“ ‘Swingtown’ would be considered a massive hit on cable, whereas most cable hits would be counted as failures” on network TV, Beckman said. “I don’t know how to compare the two.”

But the networks also ordered a number of reality series that viewers simply didn’t want to see, including ABC’s “High School Musical: Get in the Picture,” NBC’s “Nashville Star” and CBS’ “Greatest American Dog.”

“They’ll throw anything but their bar mitzvah videos on,” Beckman joked of unscripted premieres. “There’s so much of it on.”

The somewhat surprising failure of “Get in the Picture,” a reality contest based on Disney Channel’s runaway hit “High School Musical,” taught ABC a few lessons.

“We thought [‘Get in the Picture’] would do better than it did,” said ABC Entertainment Executive Vice President Jeff Bader. “The issue there is, we haven’t been able to translate the Disney Channel show audience to the ABC platform.”

Of course, once the broadcasters return with new fall lineups, all bets will be off for the cable networks. Last year, “Mad Men” saw its already-modest ratings sink further in September. The timing could be especially critical this time around, because series such as “The Closer” ended up premiering a month or so later than originally planned -- again, due to the writers strike. That could put certain cable series in the cross hairs of broadcast programmers.

Even so, the scripted/unscripted divide between cable and broadcast will likely grow. The cable networks are looking to expand original programming aggressively beyond the summertime.

“In order to grow and keep growing, you kind of have no choice,” said Turner’s Wright.

On Labor Day, TNT will premiere “Raising the Bar,” the latest courtroom drama from producer Steven Bochco. The show will have to scrape for viewers alongside a raft of new episodes from network crime shows and procedurals.

“The competition is much more fierce in the fall,” Wright acknowledged. But TNT is still forging ahead with a long-term plan to devote the vast majority of its midweek prime-time lineup to original fare.

USA this fall is bringing back Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife,” which first appeared as a miniseries last year.

“We decided it is a show that’s big enough that it could also live outside the protective summer” environment, Hammer said.

“We’re now looking at all four quarters and what makes sense, because I think we’ve truly come of age where we can place original product almost anywhere during the year with a good chance, if it’s quality work, that it could succeed.”

Such an approach is hastening the day -- which has already arrived for many young viewers brought up in multi-channel households with DVRs -- when broadcast and cable distinctions melt away completely, and TV becomes just TV.

“Three or four years ago, a guy like me had to really convince people to do cable,” Wright said, referring to the hesitation of many top actors and writer-producers. Now, “more and more people I know don’t make the distinction. They just have the 10 to 15 channels [they watch] programmed into their set-top box, or their mind.”