Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Are Cable Channels Changing American Seasonal Viewing Habits?

When I was growing up, my television viewing would vary with the seasons. In the fall old shows would begin their new runs and new shows would debut.  And while there would be a few periods filled with either reruns or specials (December being one such notable time), for the most part there would be new programming until May. Summer would generally be a time of reruns, with the only new programming being provided by the few summer replacement series which would air then. For that reason, the bulk of my television viewing would done from September to May, with summer being a time when I watched very little television at all.

Of course, when I was growing up the broadcast networks were still the primary source for new television shows. Oh, there were cable channels in those days, but none of them made their own television series back then. They seemed content to air reruns of network shows and movies. All of this would begin to gradually change in the Eighties when Showtime and HBO aired their first original, entertainment shows. Showtime was actually the first of the two premium channels to do so, airing the sketch comedy series Bizarre in 1980.  HBO would break into original, entertainment shows (as opposed to sport or documentary shows, or show using pre-existing material, such as Video Jukebox) in 1983. That year HBO aired three brand news shows: the classic children's show Fraggle Rock, the sketch comedy series Not Necessarily the News, and the horror anthology series The Hitchhiker. Ever since then Showtime and HBO have aired their fair share of original, episodic television shows.

It should be no surprise that eventually HBO and Showtime would begin many of their new series during the summer season traditionally reserved for reruns on the broadcast networks.  In fact, Showtime debuted its first sitcom, Brothers on 13 July 1984. HBO would debut two of its best known shows in the summer as well. The classic anthology series Tales From the Crypt debuted on HBO on 10 June 1989, while Canadian import Kids in the Hall debuted on HBO that July.  Not only did HBO lead the way in cable channels providing new programming, but it also established the summer as a time when they could debut.

Of course, both HBO and Showtime are premium channels; however, it would not be long before commercial cable channels would follow suit with original, entertainment programming. TBS may well have been the first, debuting its sitcom Down to Earth in 1984. It followed it with another sitcom, The New Leave It to Beaver the following year. The USA Network had already aired some original programming early in its history, although it was not episodic television series. The video/movie anthology Night Flight had aired on USA from 1981 to 1988. In 1993, When NBC cancelled a revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, USA picked it up in 1986. It would later pick up such network series as Airwolf and  Silk Stalkings. Silk Stalkings ran for another six years on USA. AMC, now well known for its quality series, debuted its first original, episodic TV series Remember WENN in 1996. TNT debuted its first original, episodic, television show, L.A. Heat, the same year.

Like Showtime and HBO before them, the commercial cable channels would begin airing many of their original shows during the summer. In fact, the USA Network debuted its first, breakout hit, Monk, on 12 July 2002. TNT also debuted its breakout hit, The Closer, in the summer--13 June 2005. It should then not be surprising that AMC debuted its breakout hit series, Mad Men, in the summer as well. It debuted on 19 July 2007.

It is perhaps because shows such as Monk, The Closer, and Mad Men were extremely successful that cable channels such as USA, AMC, and TNT tend to air the much of their original programming in the summer. Of course, this varies from cable channel to cable channel. With but few exceptions the USA Network seems to air its series in two half seasons--one during the summer, one during the winter.  TNT tends to air most of its original programming in the summer. AMC tends to spread their programming out a bit more, generally with only one or two of their popular shows airing in the summer. In fact, until this year Mad Men generally began its run in late summer, running into autumn. Of course, HBO, Showtime, and more recently Starz have also aired a good deal of new programming in the summer.

The end result of all of this for myself is that I have found my viewing habits have actually flip flopped from what they were when I was growing up. Most of the shows I watch now air in the summer, so that is when I do most of my television viewing. In fact, the past several years my television has generally been tuned to about  three or four channels: AMC, the USA Network, and TNT. While there are several shows I watch on various cable channels, however, there are very few I watch on the broadcast networks. In fact, discounting the news, I can count them on one hand. The amount of time I then spend watching television from September to May is then actually less than what it is in the summer.

Of course, without doing research on the topic, I don't know if this is true of other viewers or not. I rather suspect it is true of a good many of them. Even if they still watch network shows regularly and hence their television viewing from September to May has not decreased, I rather suspect that their summertime viewing has gone up from what it was in the Nineties. The simple fact is that there is much, much more on American television than there was even fifteen years ago. This summer the USA Network aired new runs of eight different shows. TNT aired five news runs of different shows. That's just USA and TNT. When one counts the shows airing on AMC, Showtime, HBO, Starz, and yet other networks, one really gets a grasp of the new programming that airs in the summer now.

While I cannot say that viewers' television habits have changed due to the summer seasons of various cable channels, I rather suspect that that they have. At any rate, much more original programming airs in the summer than did even in the late Nineties. At that time summer was still dominated by the networks and reruns. It would only be a few years alter that cable channels would transform summer on American television into something wholly different.


Cliff Aliperti said...

Wow, a lot of show titles bring back some memories there! The funny thing is most of those shows seemed in some way special at the time, I guess because they were unique content from those channels, but most of them were far from that.

I've fallen into the DVR/Instant viewer habit of watching complete runs in marathons now. There are very few shows that are a must for me to sit down to live, plan an evening around, etc. (Torchwood being the currect exception).

As for timing, I've always been a big baseball fan which fills up most prime time hours for me April-October. The old standard TV season fit in well with that. Who knows, perhaps that's what led me to the DVD/Streaming route, beyond the convenience, it fit the TV schedule that baseball had already built for me.

In short (yeah, right!), I'd say it's more the current ease of recording/streaming that has changed my habits more than who programs what and when.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I am a lot like you, Cliff, in technology changing my viewing habits. It goes all the way back to VCRS, when I was no longer subject to network and cable channel schedules. Now with DVR, Netflix, and streaming available on many television outlet websites, I find myself often watching shows later rather than when they air. Still, for myself, I have noticed that my viewing habits have tended to shift with who is showing what when.

Jim Marquis said...

I was just commenting to my wife the other night how I pretty much don't watch anything on ABC, CBS, NBC or FOX during the summer now. It's just recorded movies, a few premium channel shows, the political shows on MSNBC and Jon Stewart pretty much every night.