With the broadcast cats away, the cable mice will play. Ted Linhart, senior vice president of research at USA Network, which has ruled the cable ratings for six straight years, told me that the relative quiet of broadcast-network schedules in the summer months means that "a large magnet of viewers is turned off." It's no coincidence, then, that most cable hits are launched when there's no R in the month. "The summer break from broadcast gives cable networks an opportunity to get people hooked," Linhart said.
And what kinds of shows do summer viewers latch onto? Just as we reach for lemonade rather than hot chocolate when the weather turns warm, light, bright shows appeal more than the dark, tense dramas of the main broadcast season. USA series like "Burn Notice," set in Miami, and "Royal Pains," in the Hamptons, are all sun, swimsuits and seersucker. The heroes are smiling and stylish — "White Collar's" Neal Caffrey and "Suits' " Harvey Specter are the best-dressed men this side of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — and they're always surrounded by a loyal coterie of friends and family. They're exceptionally good at their jobs, sometimes freakishly so — "Suits' " Mike Ross has a magnificent memory that allows him to find the tiniest flaws in arcane legal documents after a quick perusal, while "Covert Affairs' " CIA agent Annie Walker has to do little more than pass through customs to pick up the local language — and best of all, you can miss an occasional episode and still know exactly what's going on.
This summer will be a little different, since at least one broadcast network is guaranteed a ratings smash between July 27 and Aug. 12. NBC paid a whopping $1.18 billion for the right to broadcast the London Olympics and will spend untold millions more crafting sob stories about the athletes. NBC lost $223 million on the 2010 Vancouver Games, but there are no eight-gold-medal swimmers or plucky pixie gymnasts in the Winter Olympics. The Summer Games are typically a ratings juggernaut — the 2008 Opening Ceremony was seen by nearly 35 million U.S. viewers — and the 17 nights of prime-time telecasts will provide a great promotional showcase for NBC's fall programming. After all, Americans tend to watch live — who wants to discuss swimming events when the action has moved to the track? — which means that unlike during most shows these days, during the Olympics people watch commercials. During the first week of the Beijing Games, telecast ratings saw a DVR jump of just 5 percent, compared with a 41-percent increase for, say, an episode of "Big Brother."