Endless Bummer: TV's Scripted Series Wither in the Heat

As Viewers Disappear, Broadcasters Scale Back on Solstice Dramas

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CBS's new summertime D.C. horror spoof 'BrainDead,' from the creators of 'The Good Wife.'
CBS's new summertime D.C. horror spoof 'BrainDead,' from the creators of 'The Good Wife.' Credit: Mark Schafer/CBS
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Broadcast TV's flirtation with sultry-weather scripted fare appears to have been just another summer fling, as the networks largely have scaled back previous efforts to air dramas and comedies during the tropical months.

Discounting a few odd burn-offs and season-straddling shows like the CW's canceled pandemic drama "Containment" and Fox's "Houdini & Doyle," the Big Five nets have just nine scripted series lined up for the dog days, marking a significant downturn compared to the 17 dramas and comedies that aired in the year-ago period. Summer 2014 proved to be the high-water mark for scripted solstice fodder, with the networks serving up 18 of the pricier formats over the course of the sweaty interregnum.

CBS remains bullish on scripted genre projects, as its advance streaming and foreign rights deals effectively make its summer dramas profitable out of the gate. That said, two years after striking gold with its adaptation of the Stephen King doorstop "Under the Dome," the Tiffany Network hasn't had much luck with subsequent summer launches. The Halle Berry sci-fi vehicle "Extant" was grounded after a two-season run, and all the telepathic lions, exoskeleton-sporting bears and murderously duplicitous Jack Russell Terriers weren't enough to make "Zoo" the massively popular guilty pleasure it so richly deserves to be.

"Zoo" returns Tuesday, June 28, in a two-hour season premiere, where it will look to improve on the 1.8 rating it delivered in CBS' target demo (adults 25 to 54) in its year-ago debut. Perhaps the recent outbreak of news stories about animal-human conflict will help send more viewers "Zoo"-ward; in any event, the show joins a pair of limping newbies in the Beltway horror spoof "BrainDead" and the sudsy serial killer strip "American Gothic." Through its first two episodes, "BrainDead" has delivered 4.04 million viewers, a 0.6 rating among the 18-to-49 crowd and a 0.9 in the more relevant 25-to-54 demo, making it the lowest-rated show on CBS. Meanwhile, "American Gothic" is the net's least-watched series, drawing just 3.43 million viewers in its June 22 premiere.

While CBS struggles to get its summer mojo back -- even the indefatigable "Big Brother" is down 14% through its first two episodes -- Fox largely has kept its scripted ambitions in check, slating just one official summer drama in the returning "Wayward Pines." Through five episodes, M. Night Shyamalan's supernatural strip is down 27% in the 18-to-49 demo in its "MasterChef" lead-out slot.

Scaling back scripted
The ABC and NBC schedules were subject to the most radical makeovers, as both nets have just two scripted series on deck for the offseason. ABC's frothy ensemble drama "Mistresses" is down a tenth of a point compared to its year-ago demo average (0.8) fourth, while the two-part premiere of the Mike Epps comedy "Uncle Buck" is performing well on Tuesday nights, averaging a respectable 4.22 million live-same-day viewers and a 1.3 rating with adults 18-to-49.

NBC has two returning dramas in play, as its third-year hospital strip "The Night Shift" through four episodes is averaging 4.44 million viewers and a 1.0 rating in its Wednesday night slot leading out of "American Ninja Warrior," while viewers were invited to take another stab at the lurid David Duchovny crime serial "Aquarius," which kicked off June 16 in a special two-hour, commercial-free installment. (The only promotional activity came in the form of a 60-second break in the 10 p.m. hour, when NBC affiliates were given an opportunity to tease out their 11 p.m. newscasts.) With four new episodes under its belt, the Manson Family Values procedural is eking out a 0.4 in the all-important demo, which works out to just 507,240 advertiser-coveted viewers.

The underwhelming freshman season of "Aquarius" made it an odd candidate for renewal; 18 days after NBC announced that it would bring the show back for a second season, the network remanded it to the living death that is Saturday night. The final five installments of the first season of "Aquarius" eked out 1.18 million live-plus-same-day viewers and a paltry 0.2 rating among adults 18 to 49, which adds up to around 253,620 demographically apposite viewers. And while all 13 original episodes were available to stream immediately following the series premiere, it's difficult to justify bringing back a show with such lousy linear TV deliveries -- especially when the program in question is owned by an outside studio.

The alternative
Rather than plunk down a whole bunch of cash for underperforming scripted projects, ABC is going all-in on retro, reconstituted, game shows. Emboldened by the runaway success of last summer's surprise hit "Celebrity Family Feud," ABC has ordered up new versions of a handful of old-school franchises like "To Tell the Truth," "The $100,000 Pyramid" and "Match Game," which features Alec Baldwin in the MC role made famous by the late Gene Rayburn. (The new show's so faithful to the original that even Mr. Rayburn's weird telescoping microphone is back for the reboot … although it's unlikely that 2016 panelists like Sutton Foster and Debra Messing will be anywhere near as boozed-up as old-guard cutups like Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson.) The latter two titles will join "Celebrity Family Feud" as part of a three-hour "Sunday Fun & Games" block that premieres June 26.

For its part, NBC is leaning on its workhorse competition series, "America's Got Talent," which closed out its tenth season as the top-rated, most-watched show of the summer. Thus far, the talent showcase looks to be on track to put up even bigger numbers this time around; through the first four episodes "AGT" is averaging a 2.5 in the demo, up a tenth from its year-ago tally.

"American Ninja Warrior" also draws a crowd, and two new entries, "Maya & Marty" and "Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge" have been sturdy, if unspectacular, performers in the early going.

Among the scripted efforts NBC eliminated from its summer roster were the brilliant and gory "Hannibal," which was euthanized after three seasons, and the failed comedies "Welcome to Sweden" and "Mr. Robinson." Of course, with 17 nights of Summer Olympics coverage in the wings, NBC doesn't need anywhere near as many programming hours as a year ago. Per Nielsen, the 2012 London Summer Games averaged 31.1 million viewers and a 17.5 household rating, and NBC is hoping that Rio's relative proximity to the major U.S. markets -- the seaside Brazilian city is situated in a time zone just one hour ahead of the East Coast, which means that a great deal of the Peacock's coverage will air live -- will help draw even bigger numbers come August.

If the early numbers for the broadcast summer idyll have been less than encouraging, it's worth noting that the depressed deliveries are merely an extension of the ongoing destabilization in TV ratings. And cable isn't immune to the ravages of time-shifting and ad avoidance. For example, while Lifetime's "UnReal" is the very definition of a critics' darling, its ratings continue to be Lilliputian. Through the first three episodes of season two, the suitor-TV send-up is averaging a 0.2 in the 18-to-49 demo.

USA Network's transformative freshman series "Mr. Robot" last season only managed a 0.7 in the C3 currency, up from a 0.5 in live-plus-same-day ratings, and as recently as this week, a much-ballyhooed new HBO property dove into the summer ratings pool without making much of a splash. The inaugural installment of recently emancipated ESPN personality Bill Simmons' sports chat show "Any Given Wednesday" arrived to just 260,000 total viewers and a 0.12 in the demo, which works out to a mere 152,172 members of the 18-to-49 set.

One scripted cable show that is firing on all cylindars is HBO's dragons-and-destruction epic "Game of Thrones." Now at the tail end of its sixth season, "Thrones" is now averaging 7.56 million viewers and a 3.8 rating, up 9% versus its year-ago average (3.5).