Summer TV [July 12-16, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday July 12, 2010 – Charlotte Howell (University of Texas at Austin) presents: Westen Meets Lawson: Formula as Brand and the Potential of a USA Network Genre 

Tuesday July 13, 2010 – Jaime Weinman (Maclean’s) presents: Hot In Cleveland: Betty Does Disney

Wednesday July 14, 2010 – Jeremy Mongeau presents: Cynicism Takes a Beach Trip: The Audience-Network Contract of Summer TV

Thursday July 15, 2010 – Myles McNutt (University of Wisconsin-Madison) presents: The Rigidity of Seasonal Synergy

Friday July 16, 2010 – Christine Becker (University of Notre Dame) presents: Summer Binging: What will it do to you?


Theme week organized by Noel Kirkpatrick (Georgia State University)

Picture from Hans Sendker via Flickr, used and altered under Creative Commons License permission.

  • Westen Meets Lawson: Formula as … by Charlotte Howell

  • Royal Pains premiered in 2009, and in many ways it stands as the exemplar of the (possible) USA Network genre. It uses the formula of Burn Notice and reproduces much of its form through similarly glossy cinematography of their respective vacation settings, the Hamptons and Miami. Moreover, USA wisely chose to market Royal Pains as heir to the Burn Notice throne. The selected clip is one of USA’s early ads for the show and features Michael Westen (Jeffery Donovan), protagonist of Burn Notice, explaining through voice-over the similarities between his situation and that of Royal Pains’s Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein).  Westen is essentially explaining the USA Network formula. Its formula is part of its brand.

    I argue, however, that USA Network has created a genre, extending beyond the Burn Notice formula and aesthetic as its brand.  Royal Pains exemplifies this genre, but its corpus also includes White Collar, In Plain Sight, and—by early accountsCovert Affairs. In terms of Rick Altman’s “semantic/syntactic” approach to genre, the syntactic genre characteristics of USA’s original programming includes the formula: central character dismissed from/unable to pursue lucrative/traditional form of their job for bureaucratic/nefarious/mysterious reasons, chooses instead to help people/earn a living outside or ancillary to “the law” (a variation: pursues traditional form of job in untraditional ways that make them both good at their job but forever in conflict with reigning authority). Semantic generic characteristics include: glossy cinematography of underutilized-on-television locale, a central character who is almost impossibly competent, generic self-consciousness, and especially an overall humorous tone despite dire plot circumstances. A USA Network show knows that it is summer escapist television and plays with that conceit. 

    But perhaps the true test of my argument for a USA Network genre is whether or not it moves beyond the boundaries of brand.  Can a “USA” show air on another network? Time will tell as we see how saturated or enduring the formula-cum-brand becomes, but TNT’s Leverage appears as a contender. Though it began airing in December 2008, it’s often described as a “summer series,” and it certainly borrows heavily from the success of USA’s original programming like Burn Notice. Is it merely an outlier or an early example of the USA Network genre?  

    Author’s blog:

  • Hot In Cleveland: Betty Does Disney by Jaime Weinman

  • One of the most successful shows of the summer is Hot in Cleveland, the first original sitcom produced by TV Land, which has just been renewed for 20 more episodes. Apart from cashing in on Betty White Mania, the show’s high viewership (on TV Land and CTV in Canada) demonstrates the migration of the Disney Channel formula to older-skewing channels.

    After getting rid of shows involving classic Disney characters, the Disney Channel has worked to fill the gap left by the collapse of “family-friendly” programming on the networks. Shows like Hannah Montana and The Suite Life mimic the rhythms and appearance of ’90s shows like Family Matters and Full House; they’re written by many of the same people, who fled to Disney when broadcast no longer wanted viewers under 18.

    Hot In Cleveland applies this idea to another group of viewers who, like the Disney audience, tend to be outside the beloved 18-49 demographic. According to Josef Adalian, the show was conceived after Estelle Getty’s death when Suzanne Martin, a former Frasier writer, wondered why there were no more Golden Girls-style sitcoms about older women. It’s a cheaper version of Golden Girls, just as Hannah Montana borrows from the sitcoms of Miller-Boyett. And Hot In Cleveland is staffed by former Frasier writers, driven to cable just as family sitcom writers were driven to Disney. The show has even signed up Disney’s Joe Jonas as a guest, suggesting that it wants to appeal to under-18s as well as over-49s.

    Like its Disney counterparts, Hot In Cleveland is cornier than we would expect from modern network sitcoms. In part this is a reflection of lower cable budgets, which don’t allow for a massive staff of punch-up specialists. But it’s also a reflection of a different view of cable’s role than that of HBO. The aim is not to deal in material that is too edgy for the networks to accept, but the kind that they now reject as not edgy enough.

    Whether this new strategy can produce a first-rate show in this vein is another question. The precedent of Disney, where most sitcoms tend to hover around a level of middling quality, is not encouraging. The test for TV Land is whether they can do genuinely good middlebrow work.

  • Cynicism Takes a Beach Trip: The … by Jeremy Mongeau

  • 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.


  • The Rigidity of Seasonal Synergy by Myles McNutt

  • 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.

  • Summer Binging: What will it make … by Christine Becker

  • This delicious promo offers much to deconstruct (woe be upon the forever over-identifying female spectator), but to tie it to this week’s topic, let’s address the question it asks literally: What does summer DVD watching make us do?

    NBC promoted its 1997 summer reruns with “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you,” a slogan that was derided at the time as an insulting attempt to pass off stale programming as fresh. But in 2010 TV fans have heartily embraced this mentality on their own with summer DVD and online catch-up viewing. Some are rectifying the mistake of skipping critically acclaimed series such as Six Feet Under and The Shield; others are watching prior seasons of True Blood and Mad Men to synch up with new summer airings; and many are following along with TV blog rewatches, such as Alan Sepinwall’s rewinds of Firefly and The Wire (courteously parsed into newbie and veteran categories) and The AV Club’s various classic series recaps, including The X-Files and NewsRadio.

    Such spectatorial autonomy enlivens the “new to you” concept; the blogger rewatches help overcome the primary problem of skipping shows the first time around: losing out on the community experience engendered by the set schedule; and social media let us lobby our friends to watch favorite shows and keep discussions going long after shows have left the air. Summer has thus become the prime season for viewers to act as their own network programmers, schedulers, and marketers.

    Distributors can certainly feast on this viewing practice, but it is yet another nail in the coffin of traditional network  practices. What will this make the network undead left behind to roam nightly summer timeslots do? Does this schedule shapeshifting make audiences more ravenous for TV viewing during the summer than in the past? Do we lust after cable shows more than network ones in our catch-up efforts, thereby making cable programming’s summer rule even more potent? (I’d love to be able to make a True Blood-specific pun too, but I haven’t watched it yet; it’s on my summer catch-up list.)

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 12 Jul 2010 04:02:00 +0000