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Broadcast vs Cable: A Summer Showdown
June 28, 2012  | By Diane Werts

What are you watching this summer?

Is it Saving Hope, Duets, The Glass House, The Choice, Take Me Out or Love in the Wild? Or is it The Newsroom, Dallas, Bunheads, Longmire, Anger Management or Push Girls?

The latter slate of newcomers on cable is seriously interesting, while the other slate from broadcast networks is, are they serious?

It's blatantly clear: Broadcasting's onetime monoliths utterly abdicate their primacy for summer. Yes, they try not to deliver only reruns anymore, now that cable channels have seized on the season as their chance to make inroads with viewers. But their originals? C'mon. Rookie Blue from Canada? Burn-off episodes of The Firm? Cheesy dating shows, cheesy live-together competitions — really?

Lest we forget, the broadcast networks' first real attempts at tackling the looming summer conundrum did deliver some hot shows for hot temperatures. Summer is when CBS debuted the daringly quirky hour dramedy Northern Exposure (July 1990). It's when Fox launched the soaptastic fave Melrose Place (July 1992).

And off-season was when NBC said what-the-heck and tried out a truly offbeat situation comedy called Seinfeld — first in summer 1989, and again in summer 1990, before viewers finally starting taking to the "nothing" show's unique perspective.

CBS' Survivor was a May 31 arrival in 2000, and made a strong enough impression to kickstart an entire genre — or two, fueling both regular-folks competitions and the overall reality wave that swamps us still. American Idol launched its Fox run in June 2002. And ABC's Dancing With the Stars debuted in June 2005.

So with that track record — not that every summer show was a gem, but it really was a time to try new things — what do the networks deliver now? Now, when summer cable hits like The Closer and Burn Notice do ratings that would look pretty swell on network air during the regular season?

The networks have pretty much thrown in the towel, and it turns out to be a soiled and shabby one, at that. Wipeout is back (June 28 on ABC). So's Big Brother (July 12 on CBS). News shows offer special editions like ABC's 20/20 report Heaven: What Is It? How Do We Get There? (July 6). An onslaught of "dating" shows goes looking for at least lust: Fox's Take Me Out and The Choice (plus the return of NBC's Love in the Wild and ABC's The Bachelorette).

Meanwhile, cable channels are kicking butt and taking ratings. And chances. With scripts! Nick at Nite draws a bead on the youth audience with its weeknightly serial Hollywood Heights. Traditional live-audience sitcoms make a cable comeback the networks couldn't conjure, with The Soul Man on TV Land and Baby Daddy on ABC Family. Yet-to-come audacity includes USA's Washington saga Political Animals (July 15) and BBC America's first-ever original series Copper (Aug. 19), from highbrow Homicide: Life on the Street honchos Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, chronicling New York's 19th century Irish cops (left). Want more? Just check out our new summer shows round-up for June, July and August.

And have we mentioned fresh episodes of big-time scripted faves like (take a deep breath) True Blood, Burn Notice, Falling Skies, Eureka, Drop Dead Diva, Rizzoli & Isles, Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf, Louie, Wilfred and Awkward? Shows people actually want to see! (Plus high-profile unscripted faves like Design Star and Ice Road Truckers.) Stay tuned in July and August for final seasons of The Closer, Weeds and Damages, plus such other much-awaited returns as Breaking Bad, Boss, Hell on Wheels, Warehouse 13, Alphas and Project Runway.

Sorry to turn this column into a list of lists. But when you see the titles all laid out like that, it's mind-boggling. No more can the broadcast networks argue, well, cable channels get to pick and choose their spots, they don't fill prime-time with originals seven nights a week. Because the networks have largely abandoned Saturday originals and they're moving there with Friday. And because USA is running originals five nights a week much of this summer. (TNT and ABC Family aren't far behind.) Granted, one night on USA has fresh WWE "wrestling." But, hey, broadcasters like ABC, Fox and NBC fill prime-time hours all year with football, baseball, NASCAR and, oh yeah, American Ninja Warrior, which NBC is "borrowing" this summer from its G4 cable sibling.

How far the mighty have fallen.

Here's a quick tally for weeknight prime time June 25-29 on the five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW) and five top cable programmers (USA, TNT, Syfy, ABC Family, FX).

By my count, broadcasters over those five days total 33 hours of original programming. But eight of those hours are NBC's pre-Olympics promos — uh, American qualifying meets. Subtract this every-four-years exception, and the networks have just 25 hours of originals, most of it unscripted.

Now, lookee here — our five big cablers have 26 1/2 hours. ABC Family alone has five hours of scripted originals (six shows). And the summer ramp-up isn't yet complete for USA, which adds three more hour series over the next two weeks (White Collar, Covert Affairs and, at right, Political Animals), or for TNT, which also adds three (The Closer, Leverage, Perception).

Note this tally doesn't include the insanely crowded night of Sunday, or the other originals on busy scripted-show cable outlets like Lifetime (Army Wives, Drop Dead Diva), A&E (Longmire, The Glades), AMC (Mad Men, The Killing), TV Land (Hot in Cleveland, The Soul Man, The Exes, Retired at 35), and niche channels like Disney, BET, MTV and Comedy Central.

Also not included: premium cablers HBO and Showtime. They're between seasons now on some of their biggest attractions (Game of Thrones, Dexter), but they've usually got a half-dozen scripted originals running at any time, too.

Whew — this arithmetic is exhausting me. So let's revert to words to admit that, yes, indeed, the broadcast networks do still sometimes manage to find worth-watching shows for summer. The CW has tried smart this year, with its solid Canadian drama acquisition The LA Complex, about young Hollywood showbiz wannabes, and its intiguing docusoap Breaking Pointe, tracking rising ballet stars' lives and loves. Yet even those remain intended essentially as time-fillers until fall.

So why must network summers be so dismal these days? Isn't it obvious to just about everybody but them that their Big Fall Season numbers keep falling because viewers are by then both out of the broadcast habit and unenticed to new shows whose promos they haven't been on board to see? 

No wonder NBC pays through the nose for the rights to run the summer Olympics. Once every four years, they've got a fighting chance to sell themselves to a captive audience.

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