BOSTON — Summer on the tube is typically a time for what could be called - euphemistically perhaps - relaxed viewing. You keep an eye out for that "Seinfeld" episode on NBC you missed last winter, or for one you wouldn't mind seeing again. You make a mental note to catch a summer TV movie whose promos seem to be repeated during every single station break. You plan to watch your local major league team - well, the first few innings anyway.
But this time things are even more "relaxed" than usual. Call it the networks' 1996 doldrums. The collective ratings of the three big networks are at an all-time low this summer. It's part of a continuing decline in the network share of overall TV viewership, which was down significantly during this year's regular season.
"Television's typical strategy in the summer is to recycle its old products," says Christopher Sharrett, associate professor of communication at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
In other words, reruns. The network's traditional summertime hope has been to boost viewership through repeat episodes of shows that didn't do so well in the regular season, or that never completed the season at all, like "Central Park West" (now simply "CPW") on CBS.
Yet all is not lost on the programming front. Some interesting summer viewing is available. NBC, for instance, will offer new episodes of its sitcom Boston Common (starting Sunday, Aug. 11, 8:30-9 p.m.), about a handyman who moves to Boston and lives with his younger sister, a college student. The show was a hit this spring and the network hopes to capitalize on its success.
Over on CBS, The Godfather, Part III (Sunday, July 21, 9-11 p.m. and Tuesday, July 23, 9-11 p.m.) is the network premire of the final film in what - for all its faults - is a remarkable trilogy from director Francis Ford Coppola. The 1990 production stars Al Pacino, Eli Wallach, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire. Viewers should be alert to violent and other objectionable content, however.
Some bright spots are also appearing in the vast realm of repeats. "The 'X Files' [on FOX] are being rerun and still doing well," says Professor Sharrett. And on NBC, ratings of rerun series like "Seinfeld," "Caroline in the City," "Friends," and "Mad About You" are beating the competition.
The one big difference this summer comes in August: the XXVI Olympiad on NBC, from July 19 to Aug. 4. The other special TV events this summer - though of lesser meaning to TV programmers and advertisers - are the Republican and Democratic conventions (Aug. 12-15 and Aug. 26-29, respectively).
The timing - especially the Republican event, on the heels of the Olympics - is a problem, requiring the networks to spread their staff thinner than they would like in preparation.
What about those "new" series that used to pop up on the summer schedule? Launching such programs is an idea whose time has come and gone. The tactic simply hasn't paid off in the past few years.
One has to look back as far as CBS's 1990 premire of "Northern Exposure" to find any real success. This summer, for instance, FOX's highly promoted action series "L.A. Firefighters" recently ended a disappointing run. It will reappear in the fall with some major changes.
The failure of new series during the summer months may owe to the fact that "the viewer is too smart and figures out that these series are damaged goods," says Betsy Frank, executive vice president of the advertising agency Zenith Media. Such shows are often losing candidates for the regular season that the networks - having spent money on - want to get at least some mileage from.
Cable, on the other hand, posted gains this past season at the expense of the networks. That pattern is continuing over the summer as well, as cable offers programming that eats into network viewership.
This doesn't help the nearly two-thirds of homes in the US that don't have cable service, and some of cable fare is objectionable for one reason or another. But examples of new cable series premiring include Comedy Central's The Daily Show, a weeknight survey of current events with a sardonic point of view. It bows Monday, July 22 at 11:30 p.m. with Craig Kilborn, former ESPN anchor, as commentator.
USA's The Big Easy, debuting Sunday, Aug. 11 at 10 p.m., is a weeknight series based on the 1986 feature film about semi-sleazy police in a New Orleans-like metropolis.
On A&E, the British crime series Dalziel and Pascoe premieres Tuesday, July 16 at 9 p.m. A veteran cop ( Dalziel) works with a young partner (Pascoe) in a format based on the award-winning novels by Reginald Hill. The opening show, "A Clubbable Woman," involves murder in the setting of a rugby club.
A&E's weekly series "America's Castles" displays Texas mansions that will knock your eye out in Lone Star Estates (Sunday, July 21, 10 p.m.). Yes, it does include "Southfork," famous as the setting for TV's "Dallas." But the show also takes you to less-obvious sites like the McFadden-Ward House, built in 1906, home of the first man to strike oil in Texas.
In the pop-music vein, VH1 Presents the 70s begins the week of Aug. 19 with a flurry of shows focusing on pop music of that decade. Among these are five special documentaries examining the effect of politics on musicmaking. Another set of shows focuses on the lives of important performers and composers. The shows explore not just pop music but the cultural and social conditions in which it thrived.