This ‘School’s‘ in for summer

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NEW YORK

Anyone who considers mid-August a dead time for anything original on television definitely doesn’t have an elementary school age girl at home.

This week’s Disney Channel premiere of “High School Musical 2” is a Friday-night date for millions of youngsters and the latest example of how cable has stolen the buzz from its broadcast big brothers this summer.

There’s been a run of attention-getting series with big stars on cable, such as Holly Hunter in TNT’s “Saving Grace,” Glenn Close in “Damages” on FX and Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife” on USA.

TNT’s “The Closer” routinely beats most of what the broadcasters offer on Monday nights. “Army Wives” became Lifetime’s most popular series ever, and “Ice Road Truckers” did the same for the History Channel. “Mad Men” on AMC, “Burn Notice” on USA and “House of Payne” on TNT are other intriguing new offerings.

Add such returning favorites as “Monk,” and nearly 30 scripted cable series are offering original episodes from June to September, according to Multichannel News.

“It’s a summer to remember,” says Tim Brooks, a television historian and Lifetime executive. “It’s kind of a game-changer in a way.”

On broadcast? Well, there’s always “Big Brother 8.” Or is it 14?

The original “High School Musical” premiered to 7.8 million viewers in January 2006. This month felt right for the sequel because it’s set in the summertime, says Scott Garner, the Disney Channel’s senior vice president for programming. By Aug. 17, summer camp generally is over and school hasn’t started yet.

The new movie (airing Friday evening at 8) features the original cast working and having fun at a country club, with the relationships of its main characters sorely tested. Plenty of new songs are lined up to prompt the youthful audience to sing along.

“If I was a betting man, I would say it would probably be a [ratings] milestone in cable television this year,” Mr. Garner says.

Cable networks see an opportunity to snap up bored viewers while ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox essentially shift to autopilot in the summer. The trend has gone into overdrive this year, and it’s having an impact. Through midsummer, young viewership was down 14 percent from last year on broadcast schedules clogged with repeats, talent contests and reality programs. Cable was up slightly, Nielsen Media Research said.

The assumption that many TV sets are turned off during the summer is becoming obsolete, says Jack Wakshlag, chief researcher at Turner Networks. In 1975, with fewer networks from which to choose and fewer homes with air conditioners, summer viewership was 15 percent lower than the rest of the year, he says.

In 2005, that difference was just 3 percent — and viewership is moving toward a day when there will be just as much TV watching in July as January, Mr. Wakshlag says.

Another factor in the summertime bounty of choice is the recognition by cable networks that their success increasingly depends upon having signature series that viewers will seek out. That’s why AMC, normally a movie channel, developed “Mad Men.”

The competition is keen. In 2000, the average home in the United States had access to 61 channels, Nielsen says. By last year, the typical home had 104 channels.

Until the “Who shot J.R.?” phenomenon 27 years ago, broadcast networks more often than not drew little attention to the end of the season in May. Mr. Brooks says the strategy of seeking a ratings boost through season-ending special events and series cliffhangers may be counterproductive.

“It may bring you back in the fall to see what happens, but it also tells you very explicitly that there’s nothing going to happen until the fall,” he adds. “Viewers are taking that as a signal to go elsewhere.”

Broadcasters are hardly blind to what’s happening.

They pay so much for scripted programming that economic reality locks them into repeating episodes to get extra ad revenue. Ratings that may make a series a profitable hit on cable represent failure on the bigger stage of a broadcast network. Unless someone figures out something different, networks are locked into concentrating on cheap reality programming in the summer, hoping to catch lightning with an unexpected hit.

“We all tried a little bit,” says Alan Wurtzel, NBC’s chief researcher, “but there is no way you can have a full-fledged, 52-week season, both financially and creatively.”

The result is ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox sitting back for another few months as the cable competitors continue to chip away at what always has made them special. That’s another few months of viewers not checking those networks first when they settle into their couches.

The broadcast networks suffered through an unexpectedly slow spring.

Can they afford this bummer of a summer?

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