Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Summer Television Season

Summer is nearly upon us, which also means the American summer television season is nearly upon us. Of course, summer is the time when the American television networks fill the air waves with summer replacement series. For those of you who may not know, summer replacements are those shows, usually short lived, which take the place of many regular shows on the networks' summer schedules. This year, as in the past few years, it seems the networks have decided that the reality show is the best genre for summer replacements.

Indeed, of the summer replacement series airing this summer, no less than twenty belong to either the reality show or talent show genres. It would appear that if it wasn't obvious before, the reality show genre is suffering from extreme exhaustion, as the formats of many of the new crop of summertime reality shows would appear to be, quite simply, lame. One need look no further than the first summer replacement series of the season, Beauty & the Geek, which debuts on the WB on June 1. The show seeks to match socially awkward but intelligent fellows (nerds in my mind, not geeks) with beautiful women. Beauty & the Geek may well be Masterpiece Theatre compred to Fire Me ... Please. Airing on CBS, the show features two people trying to get fired from their new jobs. The first one to get fired wins the grand prize (which I hope will allow them to never work again...). Meet Mister Mom, airing on NBC this August, sounds downright sexist to me. It sends stay at home moms away and leaves their husbands in charge of the household, presuming hilarity will ensue. Why, after all these years, is it assumed that men cannot keep house?

The talent shows airing this summer are at least better than the various reality shows. While I hate the title, Hit Me Baby 1 More Time could have possibilties. The show pits such former music stars as The Knack, Wang Chung, Tommy Tutone, and others against each other in a talent competition where the prizes are given to charity. I must admit it could be interesting to see various rock acts from my youth again. And while I am not that interested in watching ballroom dancing (it seems something one would rather participate in than watch), I am sure that there are many who are. Dancing with the Stars, in which celebrities are paired with professional dancers in a ballroom dancing competition, may well be of interest to those people who do enjoy watching ballroom dancing.

Of course, not every summer replacement series this season is a reality show or talent competition. For me the summer replacement show to watch this summer is Empire. Empire is a six hour miniseries, set in ancient Rome, which follows Octavius Caesar in the days following Julius Caesar's assassination. While I suspect it will depart a good deal from history, it could turn out to be entertaining and well done. Among its producers are Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who were also among the producers of the hit movie Chicago. It will air on ABC on Tuesday nights. Fox will also be airing a summer replacement that is neither a reality show nor a talent show. The Inside centres on the LAPD's violent crimes unit. While another police drama doesn't interest me that much, at least it isn't another reality show.

I am not sure that it has to be said that the chances of survival for nearly all of these shows is slim to none. Since the early days of American television, summer replacement shows have been expected to serve only one purpose--to replace a regular show on the television schedule for the summer. In the early days, summer replacement series usually replaced the regularly scheduled variety shows that would go off the air in the summer. Even in the late Fifties and Sixites, reruns of many sitcoms and dramas would be aired in summertime. As time went by and the season runs of TV shows became shorter, even sitcoms and dramas sometimes saw a few summer replacement series in their time slots. At any rate, summer replacement shows have always been understood to be somewhat ephemeral in nature. For the most part summer replacement series have been expected to air for four to eight weeks and then go off the air. The networks have never had any delusions about producing any hits during the summer.

That is not to say that there have not been summer replacement series that have made it onto the fall television schedule. In fact, some of the most famous TV shows in history have started out as summer replacements. In 1966 ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) imported the hit ABC (Associated British Corporation) series The Avengers from the United Kingdom for use on their summer schedule as a replacement. The Avengers proved successful enough to return to American air waves on the American Broadcasting Company as a mid-season replacement in January 1967. Having proven itself here in the United States, The Avengers finally made the American Broadcasting Company's fall schedule in 1968. Ever since its debut in the United States it has been a cult favourite and, quite possibly, the most popular British show among Americans (Monty Python's Flying Circus aside).

Starting in June 1968, CBS imported another British series to air as a summer replacement, in this case Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner. Only 17 episodes of The Prisoner were ever made, so the show had no real hopes of landing on any of the American network's fall schedules, but it proved to be very popular. The series would air again on CBS in the summer of 1969. Afterwards it would pop up on PBS and even CBS's late night schedule throughout the Seventies and Eighties. And, of course, the entire series run is available on both VHS and DVD.

Lest anyone get the idea that the only successful summer replacements in America were made in Britain, there have been quite a few summer replacement series made here in the States that have caught on. One of the most unlikely series to become a hit in the summer was Hee Haw. Hee Haw was country music's answer to Laugh In. Filled with corny jokes and top country performers, it proved to be a hit when it aired on CBS in the summer of 1969. The network placed it on its fall schedule as a result. Hee Haw would be cancelled along with every other rural oriented TV show on CBS in 1971, but that did not mean the end of the series. It would air for many, many more years with new episodes in syndication. Another hit variety show of the Seventies would also emerge as a summer replacement. The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour debuted on CBS in the summer of 1971. The show utilised many of the former writers of The Smothers Brothers Show, among whom numbered the soon to be famous Steve Martin. The series proved to be successful enough to gain a regular time slot on CBS.

Historically, summer seems to have been the time when the American networks would air more offbeat offerings. Both The Avengers and The Prisoner made their American debuts as summer replacement shows. It should then come as no surprise that Northern Exposure debuted on CBS in the summer of 1990. Set in Cicely, Alaska, the series followed New Yorker Dr. Joel Fleischman as he tried to adapt to life in the small and very quirky town. Although created by veterans of St. Elsewhere, CBS had serious doubts about the series. Fortunately, their doubts proved to be wrong. Northern Exposure proved to be a hit and has remained a cult series ever since. It aired five years in all.

Even more successful was another quirky series that debuted on NBC in July 1989, Seinfeld. The pilot aired that month under the title The Seinfeld Chronicles, with little notice at all. The show would not be seen again until the summer of 1990, when four episodes aired. While the seires did not do well in the ratings, NBC at least had enough faith in the show to give it a regular time slot starting as a midseason replacement in January 1991. Initially, Seinfeld did not have spectacular ratings, although they grew as time passed. Eventually, at midseason in 1993, Seinfeld would make NBC's vaunted Must See TV, Thursday night lineup. From there it became one of the network's biggest hits of the decade. It has also went onto become considered one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.

Of course, another unlikely hit TV series to emerge from the summer was Survivor. Debuting in the summer of 2000, the show proved to be the surprise hit of that particular season. Not only did it gain a place on CBS''s fall schedule, but, for better or worse, it also single handedly started the entire reality show cycle. It is still on the air after five years.

While The Avengers, Hee Haw, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Northern Expsoure, and Seinfeld all proved to be hits, I rather doubt this will be true of any of this years summer replacements. First, history argues against it. Most summer replacements have come and gone without anyone ever noticing beyond the people who worked on the shows. How many people today remember Malibu U (1967), Where's Huddles (1970), The Ken Berry "Wow" Show (1972), or Wish You Were Here (1990)? Throughout television history, relatively few hits have emerged from among summer replacement shows. Second, as I pointed out above, the vast majority of summer replacement series this year are reality shows or talent shows. As I also pointed out above, some of these reality shows have very lame formats. Yet others have formats that are somewhat limited, making them essentially one shot series (an example is Rock Star: INXS, in which singers compete to be the new lead singer for that band). I rather suspect that if a hit is to going to emerge from American television's summer season, it will have to either be a fairly original sitcom or drama. While I doubt it will be a hit, although it might be a good show, Empire seems to me the summer replacement most likely to succeed.

Indeed, if one looks at the summer replacement shows over the years that have been successful enough to get a regular time slot on a network schedue, it seems that it has been shows that have been somehow different that have done so. While I cannot say that I liked either Hee Haw or Survivor, I must admit that they were original and quite different from anything that has aired on American television before. It then seems to me that until the American networks stop dumping reality shows (which by now have been done to death) into their summer time slots, we probaby won't see another summer replacement show break out to become a hit for some time.

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