Cynicism Takes a Beach Trip: The Audience-Network Contract of Summer TV

Curator's Note


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.



I've been wracking my brain for the last few minutes trying to think of summer programming that carries "weight" beyond the surface.  The only current example that might fit is Rescue Me, but does that fit the Mad Men mold: whatever weight it has is at play with a surface of light wit?  Another example of a show that breaks the contract of Summer TV might be The Shield, which usually premiered in the spring and proceeded into the summer. These examples, however, are the eceptions the prove the rule.

However, I think an interesting other side to your argument is looking at how the contract of Summer TV extends beyond the summer with winter premieres of many "summer" TV staples.

What I find about Rescue Me is, most critics and audience members are attached to the 'lighter' aspect of the show -- which is to say, the breakroom banter sequences.  The NYPD Blue-tinted angst has borne the brunt of a lot of criticism since about Season Three onwards.  But you're right in the sense it trends towards the heavier end of summer TV.  I always found it interesting it replaced Nip/Tuck as the go-to F/X summer series.  Nip/Tuck, which was really the True Blood of its day, seems ideal for the season:  Glossy, provocative, and geared for bandwagon viewers.

First off, let's all remember many parts of this great piece for tomorrow - I'm very much talking about how this contract changes when cynicism gets back from its vacation, so thanks for the wonderful segue (we'll have to talk about The O.C.'s transition to Fall in the comments).

What interests me about The O.C. is the series' evolution and identity within those summer episodes: while it sold itself as campy melodrama, it was obviously intended by Schwartz to go beyond those trappings. I think the summer launch was likely part of the additional levity within those early episodes - in some ways, the series isn't that dissimilar from USA Network series, with Seth representing the comic elements which help differentiate the series from other soap operas. The show's ideal trajectory would have been a return to summer, actually: the show's fourth season very much lightened the series, and would have fit nicely into the summer months once you got past the cage fighting, creating an interesting cycle of sorts.

I love the idea of the season having a programming zeitgeist. Of course, as I'm writing about for Friday, some of us are catching up on the weightier shows on dvd during summer. Perhaps there's a difference between how we react to what we choose versus what is chosen for us.

Also, I'm on a family vacation this week, and some of us watched the "Captain Phil dies" episode of Deadliest Catch last night. But it didn't resonate with us nearly as much as the previous episodes had, and after it was over we quickly scrambled off to roast smores rather than watch After the Catch, as we usually would. After reading this piece, it's easy to conclude that the vacation context affected my spectatorship. I just wasn't in an emotional position to want to brought down by the spectacle of a reality TV death.

"The freedom from expectation" line is what grabs me. Clearly audiences have expectations that are still tied to network identities, based on the struggling ratings of broadcast's attempts to do scripted shows during the summer (at least ABC and Fox are trying).

A fair amount of this is that the broadcasts gave up summer too long ago, and reclaiming it will be difficult, but it's also that they just have different ratings expectations. Audiences clearly have expectations in the summer now as well, but I'm not even sure we, as audience members, could explain what our expectations are for summer television (except that it should probably look something like USA).

For the past few years, scripted summer scheduling has been dominated by safe co-productions and the 13-and-out disposable format of FOX Television Studios.  I could have done the entire piece on the meager network output of FTS:  Defying Gravity, Mental, Windfall, The Good Guys, Persons Unknown, The Gates.  Few of these shows demand to be watched.  Defying Gravity and Persons Unknown echo better known main-season fare (Grey's Anatomy and Lost).  The Gates aims to tap into a dryed-out vampire fanbase, on True Blood-owned Sunday nights no less.  The irony of all this?  On cable, FTS produces the quintessential summer show -- Burn Notice.

You're right about the networks ceding this territory.

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