By David Bauder
NEW YORK — If September is what first comes to mind when considering new television shows, there are some 82 reasons to think again.
That’s the number of new programs that have or will premiere on cable networks post-Memorial Day through August, based on an informal survey. That doesn’t even include existing series that are starting new seasons (HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” USA’s “Burn Notice,” etc.) or new programs on broadcast TV (NBC’s “Love Bites” and ABC’s “101 Ways to Leave a Game Show”), because the latter usually aren’t built to last.
Eighty-two. Something new virtually every day.
The deluge illustrates rapid change in the television industry: It’s only been a few years that cable networks have actively sought to exploit the broadcasters’ summer vacation to suit their own needs, and already some executives wonder if they will have to look elsewhere on the calendar.
“The competitive landscape every year just gets harder and harder for everyone,” said Laureen Ong, president of the Travel Channel, whose new summer series include “Mancations” and “Paranormal Challenge.”
The new shows run the gamut. There are celebrity-based reality shows, featuring the likes of Roseanne Barr, Brad Garrett, Sarah Ferguson and Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Cooking (“Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction”) and design (“Million Dollar Decorators”) are well represented. Big-budget scripted series are bowing (“Falling Skies” and “Torchwood: Miracle Day”). There are plenty of odd professions in the spotlight (tattoo artists, aquarium makers, tow truck operators and — ewwwww! — the stars of “True Grime: Crime Scene Cleanup”).
Wrong as it may be to judge a series by its title, we confess to not setting the DVR for “Ratbusters NYC” and “Hillbilly Handfishin’.”
When John Landgraf, president and general manager of the FX network, brought “The Shield” on the air in 2002, there were a total of 35 new scripted series that premiered on cable networks for the entire year. So far in 2011 it’s nearly 90, with half the year left to go, he said.
Networks like FX, USA and AMC all learned over the past decade how one or two critically praised new series can transform their reputations, so it’s no surprise others have tried. Same thing for nonfiction programming: History is one of cable’s top networks now, and it’s because of pawn shop operators and Arctic Circle truckers, not Civil War documentaries.
Summer became the favorite proving ground because, with broadcast networks offering virtually no new scripted series in those months, viewers are eager to experiment.
Lifestyle networks find summer a good time to start new programming because interest perks up in topics like travel and home decorating, said Eileen O’Neill, group president for Discovery and TLC. TLC runs on-air, feel-good campaigns spotlighting county fairs, swimming pools, flip-flops and other summer fun.
Over the years, aggressive summer slates helped erode the lines between broadcast and cable. History’s popular Monday-night lineup, for example, often beats fare on the broadcast networks.
The amount of new summer programming on cable now surpasses the traditional opening of the broadcast television season in late September, although the new broadcast fare is concentrated in a couple of weeks. This year, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are scheduled to bring 23 new shows on the air during the early fall.
There’s evidence the logjam is starting to affect the viewers, Landgraf said.
It’s like being invited to a feast where all the world’s best cooks offer their signature dishes. Too much choice can actually be stressful.
“They’re jaded,” he said. “They feel like they’ve seen everything before. To put something before them that feels in any way fresh is incredibly difficult.”
The good thing for viewers is that the competition forces more quality material to be made. “Mediocrity sinks like a stone in this marketplace,” Landgraf said.
To FX’s relief, the network’s new comedy “Wilfred” has gotten off to a strong start.
There are other factors that limit where programmers can schedule new programming in the summer beyond the glut of competition. The NBA Finals in June are to be avoided. With good weather, people are often outside and not settled down in front of the TV before 9 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are usually passed by because many young viewers have other social plans.
Spike, whose only new series “Bar Rescue” debuts in two weeks, generally avoids the summer because many of the young men it tries to reach are doing other things besides watching TV.
The SyFy network is aggressively marketing a big premiere week for its scripted shows “Alphas” and “Legend Quest” during the second week of July. But its strategy may be different in the future, said Dave Howe, network president.
“You would never really launch a new season or a new show at any other time aside from the summer or January,” he said. “It’s unbelievably competitive now during the summer. Most networks, including us, are thinking we might be better off launching some other time of the year.”
To make it tougher, broadcast networks also seem a little more active this season than in the recent past; NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice” have been popular in the early summer.
DVRs and the growing use of video on demand is one silver lining for the networks, particularly Howe’s SyFy. Increasingly he’s looking at how many people watch his shows through these formats and less at ratings for the night a first episode aired, and ad campaigns are focused more on awareness of the show than when it’s on the schedule.
“There really are no soft slots,” he said. “You have to go for it.”