Summer swoon chills networks TV: NBC sees Olympic gold ahead, but the Big Three are getting torched as TV viewers find relief for this dry spell by turning on cable.


If you've been looking forward to summer, odds are you don't work for one of the major television networks. For them, Labor Day can't come soon enough.

Almost as soon as the May ratings sweeps ended -- and certainly after the Chicago Bulls finished off the Seattle SuperSonics in the National Basketball Association playoffs June 16 -- the networks began their annual summertime ratings swoon, a malaise that's gotten progressively worse over the years.

Before the Fourth of July holiday, which traditionally causes viewing levels to plummet, the four major networks this year have experienced historic lows as people tune out repeats in favor of cable and other alternatives.

Last week, ABC, CBS and NBC combined for their weakest rating ever -- other than weeks featuring political conventions or the Fourth of July -- that erased the previous all-time low established just the week before.

Both weeks, the Big Three networks' aggregate rating fell by at least 8 percent compared to the corresponding period a year ago, to a mere 44 percent share of the prime-time audience. With Fox included, that figure only rises to slightly more than half of available viewers, and totals are worse among the younger viewers most sought by advertisers.

Since 1989, in fact, viewing of the four major broadcast services in summer has declined by 20 percent (compared to 16 percent on a year-round basis). Even hits like "ER," "Friends" and "Grace Under Fire" have fallen to record-low ratings in recent weeks.

Cable, meanwhile, has become increasingly aggressive about offering original programming in the summer, when the networks are most vulnerable. As a result, basic cable services combined for a record 35 percent of the audience the last two weeks, and cable networks ranging from kid-oriented Nickelodeon to older-skewing Arts & Entertainment and CNBC have experienced ratings growth.

Some of cable's gains can be attributed to sheer volume. The number of cable channels has proliferated as new niche services spring up, and the percentage of homes with cable has grown to 68 percent of all TV households.

Bob Sieber, head of research for the Turner cable networks, points to a steady ascent of cable viewing that simply expands during the summer months. "The trends are remarkably similar to what we've seen throughout the year," he said, citing double-digit percentage increases for cable during the season that ended in May as well.

Network programmers remain concerned about poor summer ratings, but -- after once seeing year-round original programming as the answer -- now say the cost of using first-run shows to stem the tide may outweigh the relative benefits.

Officials have generally come to agree it doesn't make financial sense to load up new programs when viewing levels are traditionally their lowest. In addition, the networks don't usually see a profit even on hit shows until televising them a second time, so there is an economic incentive behind a period of repeats.

Despite experimentation with launching programs during the summer, the networks also haven't had any real success in that regard since CBS introduced "Northern Exposure" in July 1990.

The most recent casualty is Fox's "L.A. Firefighters," which will end a low-rated summer run next week and then get a face lift before returning in the fall.

"You don't have to do a lot of original programming to succeed during the summer," said Preston Beckman, NBC senior vice president of program planning and scheduling.

Popular shows still do reasonably well in reruns, he noted, though much of it has to do with the genre. Comedies repeat better than dramas, and newsmagazines -- which cost less to produce -- can stay fresh by mixing repeat segments with original stories, as demonstrated by "20/20's" interview with the Menendez brothers last Friday.

For that reason, NBC is already planning to air four hours of "Dateline NBC" next summer, adding to the three editions scheduled for fall.

By contrast, prime-time soaps fare poorly in reruns, one reason Fox will pre-empt "Melrose Place" with a second movie night beginning July 15. Feature films have proven a consistent ratings draw, even in their second and third runs.

ZTC The networks are airing some original programs, but most amount to leftover episodes of canceled shows that didn't attract many viewers before the weather warmed up. Airing those programs allows the networks to "burn off" their investment in shows like "Central Park West," "American Gothic," "The Faculty" and "Hudson Street."

Rather than invest in summer programming, the networks say they're better served by putting resources into ordering more episodes of hit series. That would decrease repeats from September through May, though it doesn't address the glut of reruns during the summer.

The downside to these diminished viewing levels, observers say, is that it can erode the habit of watching network television. "We program for 52 weeks in cable," Sieber said, in contrast to the "Gone fishing" sign the networks seem to have posted during the summer.

Beyond that, viewers don't see on-air advertising the networks are running to promote their new fall lineups, leading to more marketing costs as the networks must increasingly turn to buying time on outside media -- including cable channels -- to get the word out.

Front-running NBC has a major advantage in promoting its shows this summer because the network will air the Olympic Games, which begin July 19 and promise to increase network viewing dramatically. The last Summer Olympics in 1992 commanded 34 percent of the prime-time audience, and NBC has elaborate plans to capitalize on that showcase.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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