Summer in the Peak TV Era: Originals Explode as Broadcasters Try to Keep Viewers

The networks will feature about 30 percent more first-run series this year than they did in 2018.
Courtesy of ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and The CW
From left: ABC's 'The Bachelorette,' CBS' 'Love Island,' Fox's 'Spin the Wheel,' NBC's 'America's Got Talent, The CW's 'Whose Line Is It Anyway'

If it seems like there's more original programming to watch on the broadcast networks this summer than in recent years, it's because there is.

The five English-language networks will offer up 55 original series between Memorial Day and the start of the 2019-20 season in late September, including in-season shows that continued into summer. That's up from 42 in 2018, an increase of more than 30 percent. A given week in the height of summer will bring as much as 50 hours of original entertainment programming in primetime (not including sports or news).

A robust summer slate for a broadcast network is hardly a new phenomenon, but the increased output in 2019 speaks to what traditional outlets have to do in the current climate in order to keep the viewers they have and offer advertisers a chance at reaching a decent-sized audience. A rerun-heavy schedule in the summer months doesn't cut it in the era of Peak TV.

"People aren't missing the shows they once did," Andy Kubitz, executive vp programming strategy at ABC, told The Hollywood Reporter. "In the past, if they missed a show during the season, they could catch up with reruns in the summer. That's not how it works anymore."

That sentiment was echoed by scheduling chiefs at the other networks, with NBC's Jeff Bader noting that "'repeats' is kind of a weird thing to say now. … Shows are available, and people watch them when they want to watch them."

And Fox's Dan Harrison said, "We compete against everything, every SVOD service. We need to be providing our audience something new to watch almost every week."

THR spoke to execs at every network about their approach to building a summer lineup in 2019. Below is a rundown of their strategies.

If It's Not Broken: NBC

The Peacock has a couple of new unscripted shows on its summer slate in Songland and the comedy competition Bring the Funny, but the network's summer footprint is largely unchanged from recent years.

Operating from strength allows for that: With the flagship America's Got Talent and reliable performers like American Ninja Warrior, NBC has been the top broadcast network in the summer for eight years running in adults 18-49 and the past four in total viewers. It's in the lead again early this summer, despite double-digit declines for AGT.

Bader, NBCUniversal's chief research officer and head of scheduling for the network, said it has taken a Field of Dreams philosophy toward summer programming: If NBC puts on original programming, people watch.

"We've been trying for years to get out of the notion of the September-to-May season, which is a Nielsen construct," he said. "It's something that evolved with television, and everyone sort of sticks to it. But it's not a viewer mandate. It was a Nielsen construct or a traditional television historical construct. We know people watch year round and want things to watch year round."

Turn Up the Volume: ABC, The CW

Both networks have added shows and switched up their scheduling some in the summer. Kubitz told THR that ABC will air 162 hours of entertainment programming in the summer, up 7 percent from 151 hours a year ago.

ABC also concentrated on building full nights of programming — Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday all have three-hour blocks of originals — because "we learned from last year that you can't put on partial original programming, because repeats aren't great lead-ins to original programming. We built our summer around nights of programming rather than hours of programming," the exec explained.

Because TV usage does decline some in the summer — particularly early in the evening — ABC concentrates on making "joinable" shows: "No matter what time you turn on the television, you can watch," Kubitz said. "Our game shows are just that. If you turn it on in the middle, you can still keep watching. It's fun, it's not too heavy."

The CW, meanwhile, more than doubled the number of original shows it is airing in the summer from five to 13 (not even including in-season shows like Jane the Virgin that continued past May sweeps). The network has added both scripted (British import Bulletproof, sci-fi drama Pandora) and unscripted (talent showcase The Big Stage, Taye Diggs-hosted game show Hypnotize Me) series and will give a couple of digital shows from its CW Seed platform an on-air run.

"What we've done is bleed a lot of our midseason shows into summertime so we have originals in the early part of summer, and then we started supplementing that with acquisitions and some other original pieces of development," said Kevin Levy, executive vp program planning, scheduling and acquisitions at The CW. "It's gotten us to the point where the summer has essentially as many originals as the rest of the season."

Like the network's in-season shows, the on-air ratings for the summer lineup aren't impressive, but The CW views those numbers as just a starting point. "We see on the digital side that this original content is really paying off," Levy said. "The shows that are new are delivering a large amount of impressions vs. shows that have already been up on our digital platforms." (Along with the rest of the industry, The CW keeps its actual streaming numbers in-house.)

The Big Swing: CBS

For the most part, CBS' summer schedule isn't that different from past years: Big Brother three nights a week, the back half of The Amazing Race's season and a handful of scripted series, including the first season of CBS All Access' The Good Fight (the better to draw potential new subscribers to the streaming platform).

There's one major newcomer, however: Love Island, which the network will air every weeknight for a month starting July 9. The series has been a hit in the U.K. for several seasons running, and CBS is betting it will translate in this country.

"It has been a huge hit, and it's also been a huge international success," said Sharon Vuong, senior vp alternative programming at CBS. "We all became fans here in the office and loved the real-time aspect of a dating show. We thought it was very exciting, and very CBS, really."

Each night's episode will be shot and edited largely the day it airs (helped by a 16-hour time difference from Love Island's base in Fiji and the Eastern time zone), similar to the international versions. The show is also familiar to some of its potential viewers, as the U.K. version is available on Hulu.

"It's really rare that a show launches that already has a rabid fan base," said Vuong. "That's why it was important for us to go five nights a week. We wanted to make sure we were following the same formula that has worked overseas. … We are huge fans of the format and wanted to do right by it."

Something Old, Something New, Something Rebooted: Fox

Fox is in its first summer as a network without a major studio under the same corporate roof, and also its first under the leadership of Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier. The network has a mix of reliable veterans like Masterchef — which has expanded to two nights a week — Beat Shazam and So You Think You Can Dance, along with the rookies Spin the Wheel and First Responders Live.

It also has a couple of truly left-field shows in its meta-revival BH90210, which is scheduled to premiere in August, and the aftershow parody What Just Happened??!, which is set to debut Sunday.

The network took an early swing with Paradise Hotel, which fell flat: Fox quietly trimmed a planned three weekly episodes to just one and got it off the air after seven hours (18 were initially planned). The returning shows have all performed decently so far, however, as has Spin the Wheel. First Responders Live has been steady, if at the lower end of Fox's originals, in its first two weeks.

With What Just Happened??! and BH90210, Fox is also sending a signal to the creative community that it's willing to take some risks with its programming, said Harrison, executive vp strategic program planning and scheduling for Fox Entertainment. The network beat out other suitors for BH90210, and What Just Happened??!, a parody of TV aftershows starring Fred Savage that includes a fake drama that he's obsessed with, is nothing if not a unique premise.

"It's very important to Fox in general and Charlie Collier specifically to demonstrate that we're in the entertainment business and we're able to attract talent like Fred Savage, Dax Shepard and Justin Timberlake for Spin the Wheel, [and] getting the 90210 reboot on broadcast and not another platform," said Harrison. "I think that sends an important message. We want creators to know we're a great place to do business."

NBC's Bader noted that summer is still a time when viewers catch up on series they missed, but they're much more likely to do that on a digital platform or via saved-up episodes on a DVR than through traditional reruns. Hence the networks are also pushing viewers to binge their in-season series while still offering up hours and hours of new material.

"We're adding to the more by putting on more," said ABC's Kubitz. "But I think it's just trying to match how people are consuming television."