The boom in scripted summer programming has been met with increasingly diminished returns, as broadcast and top-tier cable nets are struggling to land a hot-weather hit.
Since late May, when the 2014-15 broadcast campaign gave way to the summer season, targeted C3 ratings across network TV and ad-supported cable have plummeted 14% versus the year-ago period. And while reality shows aren't wholly exempt, the dwindling GRPs largely are a function of viewers' seeming indifference to this year's crop of new and returning scripted series.
Through Thursday, July 2, only one scripted show (ABC's "The Whispers") has premiered to so much as a 1.5 rating among adults 18 to 49, which, despite an ever-greying broadcast audience, remains the demo of choice for most advertisers. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the average rating for the 13 scripted shows that have rolled out this summer is now a lowly 0.8.
Only two scripted series are averaging north of a 1.0 in live-same-day. Back for its third season, CBS's "Under the Dome" is averaging a 1.2 in the 18-to-49 demo, as is the new thriller "Zoo." Both shows are delivering a 1.8 rating in CBS's target demo, adults 25 to 54.
Ironically, it was the early success of "Under the Dome" that made broadcasters believe they could make a run on a season that had long ago been given over to inexpensive reality shows and repeats. The adaptation of the 2009 Stephen King doorstop bowed on June 24, 2013, to 13.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched summer premiere in 21 years. The "Dome" demos were also pumped up, as the pilot episode delivered an unheard-of 3.3 rating among the 18-to-49 set and a 4.5 in CBS's target range.
Regardless of how low the "Dome" ratings have sunk since that stellar premiere, the show remains an instrument of pure profit, thanks to advance streaming and foreign-rights deals that defray 100% of the production costs. In other words, every dollar of ad sales revenue generated by the series is the very definition of "gravy." (CBS has similar agreements in place for "Zoo" and its sophomore series "Extant.")
If the early success of "Dome" turned out to be unsustainable, the struggles at the ad-supported cable networks are nothing short of unthinkable. Despite a rash of near-heroic promotional efforts and a good deal of advance buzz, nets like Lifetime ("UnReal"), TNT ("Proof"), AMC ("Humans"), ABC Family ("Stitchers") and MTV ("Scream") have had a difficult time gathering live audiences for their summer launches, as each premiered to a 0.5 rating or lower.
For all that, there are some extenuating circumstances that may explain away some of the lackluster deliveries. In the case of "UnReal," the linear TV ratings may have been undermined by Lifetime's decision to stream the first four episodes in advance of the June 1 premiere. Whatever the case, the network is sufficiently enamored with the show -- a scripted series about the producers behind an unscripted "Bachelor"-like reality show -- that it just picked it up for a second season.
USA Network demonstrated an even itchier trigger finger, giving its new techno-thriller "Mr. Robot" a second-season order mere hours before its June 24 debut. And while the pilot drew the now-standard 0.5 rating, the opening numbers likely were impacted by an aggressive streaming rollout that began a month prior to the official TV launch. If the deliveries for the second episode were wholly incommensurable with the show's overwhelmingly favorable critical notices, "Mr. Robot" did manage to eke out a slight gain in the dollar demo, improving to a 0.6 in live-same-day.
Whatever lies behind all the wobbly scripted results -- chalk it up to everything from time-shifting to simple TV fatigue, everything except quality (on the cable side at least) -- the summer has not entirely been bereft of hits.
On the night the FIFA Women's World Cup final drew a record 25.4 million viewers to Fox, Discovery Channel kicked off the venerable ratings juggernaut that is Shark Week, a franchise that regularly delivers more than 40 million viewers. Sports and stunts aside, a few broadcast series have also stood out, including NBC's top-rated (2.5) "America's Got Talent" and ABC's new twist on an old game show, "Celebrity Family Feud" (2.2).