Back To The Future? Forward To The Past!

So we’ve somehow made it to the precipice of the summer of ’22, which for the past couple of decades has meant that the broadcast television networks shifted into cost-cutting mode and put their scripted series strategy on hold to introduce schedules primarily made up of game and competition shows.  This coming summer, there will be at least 18 such series that will air on the five broadcast networks, and several of them will air multiple times a week in encore time slots.

Many of them are established hits and de facto franchises that anchor nights, such as The Bachelorette, American Ninja Warrior and Masterchef.  Much like the conservative strategy of the “regular season” announced last week, summer TV scheduling has even lower potential viewing levels up for grabs, and an even more challenged promotional landscape to navigate.  When the definition of a smash hit is something that rounds up to a 1 demo rating (virtually no prime time series get above a 1 these days), being as fiscally and titularly as conservative as possible is arguably a good business plan.

But it isn’t all that different from what broadcast television looked like even further back.  Since a large proportion of game show viewers are typically over 65, I wanted to take a look at what the TV landscape looked like 65 years ago.  In that summer of 1957, the three broadcast networks (essentially all that was available to a large portion of America) aired 13 different quiz, game and competition shows.  In fact, the majority of them aired in the fall as well.   Most of the unscripted shows produced original episodes over the summer, often with substitute hosts filling in while their cold-weather emcees took vacations or did summer stock.  As the scripted shows that were on typically aired their reruns exclusively in the summer (many produced 39 originals a year), some quiz shows actually did slightly better ratings in warm weather.  It was a simpler world then for sure.

But when WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE and AMERICAN IDOL struck oil with their summer stints, modern broadcasters got on the bandwagon pronto, seeking additional cash cows.  In the early 2000s FOX in particular aggressively developed additional competition series, and the “Big Three” followed suit.  Only that was concurrent with the growth of cable and pay networks’ breakthroughs with their own original scripted series, many of which began their seasons in the summer months.  While there were a number of shows that did click, far more failed, and it effectively opened the door for these upstart destinations to lure viewers their way, with a long-term effect of erosion that was exacerbated by technical evolution, first with time-shifting devices and now, of course, with alternative platforms as well.   Chasing those cost-effective hits effectively ceded the viability of original scripted series in warm months on a traditional network, and the evolution of options available to viewers has cemented it.

So this summer we’re getting the returning competition series, plus reboots of titles from eras disparate as the 1960s (PASSWORD) to the 2000s (DON’T FORGET THE LYRICS).  LYRICS, of course, was a primetime mainstay for all of three years, so of course it’s deserving of a second chance.   The current versions of PRESS YOUR LUCK and THE $100,000 PYRAMID have now lasted as long as their original incarnations did.  Peyton Manning is evolving into a game show fixture, serving as a producer on ABC’s THE FINAL STRAW, a Jenga-like show to be hosted by ABBOTT ELEMENTARY’s Janelle James, as well as hosting a second season of the CAPITAL ONE COLLEGE BOWL that’s scheduled to debut in late summer.

I provide these details because it’s that much more unlikely than ever any of you will watch any of these shows, and since as a genre they tend to get viewed in real time if at all, it’s even less likely you’ll be watching on your own schedule.  Unless you’re a devotee of these genres in the fall you’re not even likely to get an algorithmic prompt to watch on these networks’ streaming partners.  And the Paramount+, Peacock and Hulus of the world WILL be adding original scripted series this summer that will be getting off-platform marketing pushes as well.

Media companies know this, and they’re all in on focusing their efforts in those directions, leaving broadcasters more than ever in a second priority position, even more so in the summer.  As these battles intensify, it’s even more likely that summers in future years will even more closely resemble the summers of generations past.  Lots and lots of pulsing music, light shows, attractive female hosts and disposable television.

Frankly, compared to news, I”m looking forward to it.

Until next time…


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