With Labor Day in the rear-view mirror and those crisp fall September nights beckoning us, let’s take one last look at the TV summer that was. Or wasn’t, as the case may be.
TV activity has always declined in the summer, but I don’t recall a season of television as unremarkable and unremarked upon as the one that just ended. Which is surprising, given that the previous summer was dominated by two amazing series – the monster hit “Game of Thrones” and the critical darling “Twin Peaks: The Return.” And the year before featured the break-out Netflix hit “Stranger Things.”
Network television, especially, seems to have given up completely on the idea of providing original creative programming in the summer. Week after week the top-rated broadcast offerings this summer were reality TV shows. There were a couple of hits in this category: “America’s Got Talent” attracted big audiences (especially among over-50 viewers) and the 20th (!!) season of “Big Brother” also drew a lot of eyeballs. But a network that can only get by with reality TV programming will eventually slide into cultural irrelevance.
There were only a couple of cable shows that seemed to break through the 2018 summer ennui – “Succession,” HBO’s media-baron-based dramedy that loosely recalls the Murdoch empire, and “Killing Eve,” the BBC-TV kill-or-be-killed drama. Neither show had huge ratings but as their series moved to their concluding episodes they did seem to gain small footholds in the national conversation. But since they were sleeper hits their real impact will be felt next near when they return for season two.
In my home we finally bought a large screen TV this summer. It has a fantastic resolution and provides a beautiful viewing experience. It was great for finally catching up on “Game of Thrones.” I only mention this because when I recently accessed my DVR to watch the first few episodes of this season’s “Better Call Saul,” I realized that since we’d bought that TV, it hadn’t recorded since the final episode of “The Americans” last May. My “to watch” list was essentially empty for two month. And it certainly hadn’t been tuned to anything live since we brought it home. That’s a whole summer of viewing limited to Netflix, HBOGO and MLB.TV and sadly representative of where TV is these days.
I do find it surprising that the broadcast and basic cable networks, which are advertiser-supported, don’t even seem to be trying in the summer any more. After all, if they don’t get viewers they don’t get advertising revenue. It’s the subscription services – Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Showtime – that work harder at offering original programming in the off-months, even though they get paid whether anyone watches the channel or not. Obviously their key strategy is to make sure that at least one person in the house cares enough about at least one show to argue against cancelling the service. To that end the subscription services only slightly take the foot off the accelerator in the summer. Thank goodness SOMEONE’S not taking us for granted during the hot months.
But in an age of horizontally integrated media conglomerates maybe the corporate brass doesn’t really care if their entertainment businesses go dormant for a few months since their news businesses don’t seem to slow down at all in the summer. If anything, rising temperatures seem to contribute to hotter, more outraged, news coverage. Perhaps Universal and 2st Century Fox are OK with low ratings at NBC and Fox TV as long as they are steady or even higher at MSNBC or Fox News.
Still, it makes me nervous that regular viewers of live TV are spending their summers watching only reality TV and the news shows. The last thing we need is for people to conflate those two TV genres. Where do the Stormy Daniels and Omarosa sagas belong? On the news or on reality TV? This summer it was hard to tell.