The summer TV review

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The heat is on, but the ratings are cool for scripted shows

In three weeks, the 2016 Rio Olympics will ignite what has been a particularly lackluster summer season on broadcast and cable. Despite the arrival of a variety of new scripted series, this summer, so far, has been dominated by the usual suspects: "America’s Got Talent" and "American Ninja Warrior" on NBC, "Big Brother" on CBS, and "The Bachelor" on ABC.

Unlike recent years when cable stepped up to the plate with some meaty dramas in the summer, the ratings — and the buzz — have been particularly modest this summer for the new crop of scripted shows. Only "Greenleaf" on the Oprah Winfrey Network deserves bragging rights. The show lifted the five-year-old network to its biggest series launch to date, with 3.04 million viewers and a 2.18 rating in target women 25-54 on June 21, according to Nielsen.  

Particularly disappointing is the new TNT drama "Animal Kingdom," which the cable network was hoping would help put it in the same creative league as FX with "Fargo." Based on the 2010 Australian film of the same name, "Animal Kingdom" follows a 17-year-old boy, who, after the death of his mother, moves in with a criminal family governed by Ellen Barkin as matriarch Janine "Smurf" Cody. Only 1.2 million viewers tuned in for the premiere on June 12 (based on the Live + Same Day data), which falls well below the typical 4 million viewers who are currently tuning in for "Major Crimes" and the final season of "Rizzoli & Isles." The show tries hard to seem cool, but is saddled with caricature-like characters.

"Animal Kingdom" is not the only new cable drama failing to make the grade, creatively or by the rating numbers. Other early disappointments include "Preacher" on AMC, "Guilt" on Freeform and "Roadies" on Showtime — all started out soft and have not improved.

The arrival of "The Summer Olympics" will certainly again prove the value of big event programming, but that can’t explain why these new scripted shows aren’t working this summer. It’s likely the case of too much television, a notion that surfaced at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles last year.

At an executive session hosted by FX Networks, network CEO John Landgraf predicted that the abundance of TV programming would limit the ability of shows to build buzz and result in declining audiences.  "For programmers, this bubble has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories," he said.  

His prediction was indeed correct.   

Just three years ago, for example, it was a novelty for CBS to introduce "Under the Dome" during the summer season. But as the broadcast networks attempt to keep up with the increased competition from cable and streaming platforms, it’s become commonplace. The summer network scripted menu now includes "American Gothic," "BrainDead" and "Zoo" on CBS, "Mistresses" on ABC, "Aquarius" and "The Night Shift" on NBC, "Wayward Pines" on Fox, and "Containment" on The CW. Quantity, unfortunately, is not synonymous with quality.

Maya Rudolph- and Martin Short-hosted NBC summer variety hour "Maya & Marty," nothing more than a showcase for B-level skits from "SNL" writers, also fell way short ... pun intended.  And ABC sitcom "Uncle Buck," the second series based on the 1989 John Candy film of the same name, has come and gone.  

What has been successful this summer is ABC’s "Sunday Fun and Games," surprising considering the line-up features game show revivals. The night includes new versions of "Celebrity Family Feud," "The $100,000 Pyramid" and "The Match Game" hosted by Steve Harvey, Michael Strahan and Alec Baldwin, respectively. It shows that smart packaging and marketing — like the network’s Thursday night "TGIT" rotation of Shonda Rhimes dramas — can do wonders for ratings. "Feud" and "Pyramid" both rank in the Top 10 in the Nielsen ratings, while "The Match Game" is in the top 15.

ABC’s fourth game show revival, "To Tell the Truth," hosted by Anthony Anderson on Tuesday night, might have been more successful if the network made room for it on its Sunday night game line-up.   

Since success often breeds imitation, I expect the summer of 2017 — and all summers in the future — to be glutted with game shows. Other networks will likely try to mimic ABC’s success (I can see a new version of "The Hollywood Squares".)  And scripted newbies, while not impressive this year, will by no means go away. But perhaps they need more help in the branding department than they have in the past. As Landgraf noted, even with good talent and strong scripts, it’s hard to stand out.   


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