NEW YORK – Instead of gazing at starry skies, many people are basking in the glow of a TV set now that networks are producing original programming during the summer.
May to September — traditionally considered rerun's reign — has been infused with fresh shows, as networks hope to strike gold with summer hits.
But viewers tend to shy away from traditional dramas and sitcoms during the summer, preferring light entertainment like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Networks use the summer as a "testing ground" for programs, especially reality-based shows, said Ted Johnson, writer for TV Guide. "Millionaire, Survivor and Fear Factor have all gone on to survive during the year. These shows are relatively cheap to produce and attract a younger audience."
This summer American Idol got the formula just right. Each week on the Fox program contestants sing before judges in hopes of landing a major recording contract. And NBC has combined the stunts of Fear Factor with the trivia of The Weakest Link on Dog Eat Dog, where six players battle to win a $25,000 cash prize.
But summer success doesn't equal a future spot in primetime.
Although American Idol has proven to be the breakout hit of the season, it may not make it onto a packed fall line-up.
"We haven't made a positive determination about renewing (American Idol) yet," a Fox spokesperson said. "Any reality show has a certain half-life. They tend to burn hotter and brighter and not last as long as dramas. They are perfect for summer."
Ironically, one original program debuting Aug. 1 is The Rerun Show. On the NBC program a troupe of comedians will reenact episodes from classic TV shows such as The Partridge Family and Diff’rent Strokes.
Programs that people can watch sporadically like reality TV and newsmagazines are the best picks for summer, the Fox spokesperson explained.
But USA Networks, which is vying for a chunk of the network audience, is betting viewers will follow the comedic adventures of Monk, an obsessive-compulsive detective played by Tony Shalhoub. Michele Ganeless, executive vice president of USA Networks, said the cable channel has already experienced summer success with The Dead Zone, an hour-long drama that is the No. 1 basic cable show.
"There are always opportunities to launch an alternative type program," she said.
And USA isn't threatened by network TV's new host of summertime selections.
"Having more options for viewers on TV doesn't make it more difficult," Ganeless said. "There are just more reasons for viewers to turn on the TV in the summer."
While these new shows are sometimes picked up for the fall season, many are designed as short-term programs.
Fox recently debuted a one-hour newsmagazine, The Pulse, featuring some of the cable channel's personalities, including Shepard Smith, Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly. The series is scheduled to run through Thursday, Sept. 5.
Non-scripted "drama-mentary" programs are proving popular as well. During State V. on ABC, news cameras follow the prosecution and the defense in a series of homicide cases.
Also, Dick Wolf's Crime & Punishment on NBC follows actual cases brought to trial by the San Diego District Attorney's office. The show, edited to resemble a hard-hitting drama, has done well, with more than nine million viewers tuning in last week.
But the summer fare isn't just brain candy for audiences. The shows help assure networks that viewers will tune in during the fall as well.
"Networks started seeing that they would turn the lights off during the summer with the expectation that viewers would come back in the fall, but they weren't getting that," said Johnson. "Year after year, audience share would decline with the launch of the new fall season."
And with cable channels creating wildly popular programs like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, networks can't afford to sit out the summer.
"The year doesn't end when the TV season ends in May," Johnson said. "It used to be three or four networks and that was it, but now in a 500-channel universe, there's a great level of competition — the playing field isn't level anymore."
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