Conventional wisdom holds that winter audiences are held captive by the weather. So in this regard, the very idea of summer television becomes about choice – choosing TV over a myriad of other options, entertainment or otherwise. The programming is competing with summer blockbusters and outdoor events, instead of time-slot rivals. Networks need summer zeitgeists to compete. They need shows with a 'must watch' reputation.
How does a show gain that reputation? By focusing on pleasure, guilty or otherwise. Summer TV is free from the life-and-death stakes of cop and doctor behemoths; it can focus more purely on what the audience wants. The television landscape in July and August is filled with images that please the eye, or provide delight through shock. The language of summer TV is eminently quotable. But to thrive, concepts need a distinct lack of weight – a hokey game show (Who Wants to be a Millionaire), an obstacle course-oriented beach show (Survivor), or a seemingly low-stakes singing competition (American Idol).
The virtue of a summer launch is a freedom from expectation, that turns these concepts into powerhouses. The O.C., one of the more culturally relevant summer launches of the last decade, positioned itself as an event precisely because it appeared to be a campy melodrama. Television that appears fluffy can survive in the context of summer, while autumn has more taxing demands. Most recently, True Blood's re-appropriation as a summer series cemented its status as a cult mega-hit, as opposed to the strange, autumnal soap opera it appeared to be in its first season.
Of course, shows with a dramatic heft can survive in summer as well. Mad Men is a perennial July/August launch. But what makes it part of its season is the lack of ugliness. It's anchored by an attractive leading pair, with sumptuous sets and costuming. The dialogue crackles with wit, even as it conveys the dark soul of '60s culture. After all, Mad Men is a show about guilty pleasure. An unflinching, ugly drama like Breaking Bad or The Wire is anathema to summer TV. Deep as summer programming can be, it's a season with surface on the mind.