The Rigidity of Seasonal Synergy

Curator's Note

Whether due to a particularly breezy pace or a distinctly sunny setting, many summer series become permanently connected with the season in which they premiere. This sort of seasonal synergy can result in summer success, but it also promotes a rigidity that threatens series which extend beyond their summer roots in subsequent years.

USA Network's Royal Pains (see Slide #2) is by necessity a show about summer: its premise, a concierge doctor who caters to both rich and poor patients in the Hamptons, would be impossible in other seasons, when the rich would be away from their summer homes. It is so connected to the season, in fact, that USA has been unwilling to schedule it at any other time: the series is the only original series in USA’s lineup which is exclusively scheduled during the summer season.

Burn Notice, which USA schedules in both summer and winter, is more seasonally neutral, but its ratings (see Slide #3) suffer when airing outside of its initial summer home. Its third season averaged 6.17 million live viewers in its summer episodes, but dropped to an average of 4.63 million when it returned in the winter. With increased competition, “summer shows” like Burn Notice are devalued, the same qualities which make them so synonymous with summer becoming a liability when compared with series “worthy” of being scheduled in the traditional television season.

However, this sort of rigid hierarchy has not always been the rule within television: Beverly Hills, 90210 started its second and third seasons in July during the early 1990s, while Survivor and The O.C. began as summer programming before transitioning into the fall/winter model. Summer was a space in which to find a foothold, to capture viewers during a less competitive period and then hopefully hold onto them in the following seasons, which USA has been quite successful with.

Series which work in the summer should work in other seasons: what seems synergistic in July would simply seem escapist in January. However, network resistance to true year-round scheduling (which is lessening somewhat – see Slide #4) leads to seasonal typecasting of those shows which debut in the summer months, which sits in direct opposition to the open access created by DVRs, DVDs and On Demand or online viewing.


Between your post and Jeremy's, there's this weird sense of trying to parse out why shows are fitting for summer and why they're not (couldn't have organized you all better if I had tried).

One thing that strikes me is that for all the crying of broadcast dying, it still remains a potent audience draw, which is cable nets air their shows in the summer or winter, when the broadcasts step back from the schedules.

So, ultimately, what makes us say this show isn't a summer show and this show is? I think something like Burn Notice would be at home on a broadcast network all season long. After all, sunny doesn't stop in Miami, right, Hawaii Five-O?

Burn Notice could be shifted to a network and a September-to-May schedule, yes.  But there'd be more-than-cosmetic changes going on in such a shift.  The USA shows are ultimately light and breezy, even with life-and-death situations.  A network, with its adrenaline-charged act-outs, wouldn't let this happen.  As is, Burn Notice can focus on cleverness; on a network, it would have to focus on stakes.  That isn't to say it's a stakes-free show, but moments of real jeopardy come as a surprise.  But the new Hawaii Five-O, as an example, is sparked by a story of familial revenge.

First, you both committed the mortal sin which CBS will be bashing into our skulls between now and September: Hawaii Five-0, not Hawaii Five-O. Tsk tsk.

Second, I think there are four primary elements in how we define a summer series: premise, execution, branding, and (of course) scheduling. For me, Royal Pains falls into all four categories: its premise distinctly suggests the lifting of one's burdens, as Hank escapes his position as a blacklisted surgeon in New York to enjoy a summer of luxury in the Hampton's, the execution emphasizes his quick-witted ability to help those in need, and the branding very clearly (as the bit of Twitter promotion suggests) relates the series to summer and the break from other series.

What separates Royal Pains from other USA series is that their premises are not so inherently summery: while the execution and branding might be similar (especially for Burn Notice), the premise comes from a decidedly darker place of burned spies and shadowy organizations, and Miami is less a vacation getaway and more of a prison. In some cases, dark premises can be all but forgotten: as Charlotte pointed out in Monday's discussion, Monk is a show about a cop who lost control of his obsessive compulsive disorder after his wife's tragic murder, but its execution is so comic and its branding so focused on the comic elements of Monk's neuroses that the premise became secondary. However, because the premise was not a dominant factor, the series never felt particularly connected to summer, easily able to work between seasons.

However, while premise might be the strongest element of what defines a summer series for me, the role of scheduling is less defined: most network series are "made" into Summer shows through scheduling rather than designed for the season (like FOX shoehorning Lie to Me into a block with The Good Guys), and so it is interesting to see what influence the most simple of variables has on definition.

Jeremy, I think your point about the distinction between cleverness on USA and stakes on the networks is right on point and well said.  However, I wonder about viewer loyalty when talking about such distinctions in light of ratings.  As always, I wish there were better metrics for understanding who is watching and how.  From personal experience, when the summer shows I watch air during the winter, I usually DVR them then watch them during the weekend, which in some ways maintains them as summer escapist fare.  Their scheduling sometimes pits them against network shows that draw similar audiences but also works against a smoothe transition from a primetime network show that works with dire straits and angst to a breezy USA show.  (I had this issue winter Thursdays trying to keep up with both the angst-o-rama Supernatural and Burn Notice.)

Which all just goes to say that the issues Miles brings up in this post require a great deal of discussion.  Certainty what's been said is very fertile ground for it.  Thanks for bringing these issues and this information to light, Miles!

I'm not so certain that the definition of the content of a summer series applies anymore, for some of the reasons Charlotte brought up.  First of all, summer series as a relatively new phenomenon (in the history of television).  They came to be as a way to grab more of a market share when there was a huge 3-4 month gap in television.  USA knew, as a cable network beginning to produce original programming, that it could grab a stronger market share and deliver more of an audience to advertisers when there was less competition, in the summer.  Most cable networks followed the same format (FX, AMC).  As the cable networks produced more and more programming that had already proven popular in the summer, it started to move to fall and spring (FX did this).  Summer is a TV testing ground of sorts.  Does Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Rescue Me or It's Always Sunny fit your light-hearted or escapist content definitions of a "summer series"?  I just don't think the content approach is useful for defining what a summer series is.  USA has defined itself as seeking a particular sort of original content, and they air it in the summer, but the other cable channels don't fit.

Shana, I think you're right that content should not be the *only* defining quality of a summer series, but I do think that there are many shows which become labeled as "Summer Series" as a result of their content (Royal Pains is the primary example, but Burn Notice also applies). For me, there is a difference between a "Summer Series" and a "Series which debuts or airs in Summer." I think that content is one of the ways in which we can make this distinction, in that shows which feel particularly suited to summer tend to stay there, while shows which have no real connection to the season could be moved into the Fall or Winter periods. I also think that it's possible for a show to be a summer series despite airing or debuting in a different season: Entourage has jumped all around HBO's schedule, but I'd say it's as Summery as the network gets, whereas True Blood started in the Fall and then moved to Summer when it was clear it was best designed for that season. However, if HBO's Game of Thrones debuts next summer, I would be reluctant to consider it a "summer series" based on my own personal definition of the term, and content would be a part of that definition.

As it was, the word limit kept me from exploring this from every angle, but I'm very interested in the circumstances you describe, wherein shows start in one season and then move to another (or, in the case of Mad Men, straddle two seasons by premiering in late July/mid August) - there you're getting into how networks are using the summer season from a scheduling perspective, stretching the seasonal expectations. You're quite right that summer is not exclusively the realm of the summery or escapist series, but I do think that it remains home to those types of shows, and there is certainly plenty of discussion to be had on this topic.

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