- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

Somewhere between potentially dead doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Jack Bauer’s potentially deadly germ exposure on “24” and the potential of a new fall season on network TV, there is this: a dating show with the lights out, aging former athletes in a tug-of-war and celebrities eating ox innards to raise money for charity.

The traditional television calendar offers fall debuts, sweeps-month cliffhangers and summer reruns is as outdated as Archie Bunker’s chair. The new formula is to keep viewers tuned in through the summer with the outrageous, the cringeworthy and the truly tasteless.

For the most part, summer TV is the video version of the beach-bag book. For every quality summer show like “Mad Men” (AMC, returns Aug. 16) and “The Closer” (TNT, returned June 15), there are about a half-dozen breezy summer shows such as “Wipeout” (ABC), “Dating in the Dark” (ABC) and “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” (NBC).

“Summer TV has become like summer cuisine,” says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. “It is like a hot dog on the grill. Aesthetically, it fills the time slot and the money crunch.”

It seems viewers want their summer viewing options, particularly on the big four broadcast networks, as uncomplicated as that cookout fare. Unscripted, too, and with a plot simpler than a chick-lit best-seller.

Take these stats from the third week of July 2008: “America’s Got Talent” (NBC) and “Wipeout” (ABC) were the two top-rated shows, with “So You Think You Can Dance” (Fox), “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?” (Fox) and “Celebrity Family Feud” (NBC) helping round out the top 10.

“The networks got here by trial-and-error,” says Mike Schneider, television editor for Variety. “It is still tough to put on a drama in the summer. It is hard to commit to it, and it is more expensive. Reality shows are less expensive, and they appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

Also, in between folks velcroing themselves to a wall on “I Survived a Japanese Game Show,” networks can heavy-handedly promote the traditional fall slate.

“Cable has come out with a lot more original programming,” says Mr. Schneider. “Networks can’t just hang out a ‘gone fishing’ sign or they will lose a large chunk of viewers. They need the space to promote the fall shows.”

Actually, the medium began with year-round programming. It had no choice when television was live, Mr. Thompson points out. That evolved into 13-week replacement series in the summer, and finally into the fall TV premieres “and the big, fat TV Guide fall preview issue” from the 1950s to the 1980s, says Mr. Thompson.

The first big challenger was cable TV, which came into American homes en masse beginning in the early 1980s. Fox, the newest broadcast network, came on the scene in the late 1980s and broke the traditional rules by airing “summer seasons” of such hit shows such as “Beverly Hills, 90210” in the early 1990s.

“Fox changed the rules of the game,” says Mr. Thompson. “They showed that networks couldn’t sit still. But it wasn’t a huge change.”

That big change came in 1999, says Mr. Thompson, when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” premiered to outstanding viewing numbers. That was followed by such summer hits as “Survivor” (2000), “Fear Factor” (2001) and “American Idol” (2002).

“It really didn’t take reading between the lines to see that those shows did well and that unscripted shows fit in with today’s fiscal environment,” says Mr. Thompson. “Reality is not cheap, but it is less expensive than producing a scripted show. And limited series runs fit the parking space just perfectly — we seldom watch reality TV the same way we would watch ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’”

This summer’s lineup is crowded, and not a “Masterpiece Theatre” in sight. Among the highlights (or lowlights):

“The Superstars” (ABC, June 23) — Remember old football players doing the obstacle course in tube socks in the 1970s “Superstars?” The premise is the same, only they are paired with C-list celebrities.

“Dance Your Ass Off” (Oxygen, June 29) — Marissa Jaret Winokur, the original chubby dance champ Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray” on Broadway, is the host of this cross between “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Biggest Loser.” Overweight contestants are paired with professionals who train them in various dancing styles (ballroom, hip-hop, pole), which they then use in an attempt to slim down the eponymous part of their anatomy.

“Dating in the Dark” (ABC, July 20) — It is a cross between “The Bachelor” and a blackout. Three men and three women share a living space, but no one is allowed to see the housemates of the opposite sex; instead they have “dates” in a dark room. Then each has to choose a date, sight unseen.

“Wipeout” (ABC, returned May 24) — Thirty-four contestants try to win money by negotiating an extreme obstacle course. Because wiping out will always be funny (especially when accompanied by grunting, face plants and snarky commentary).

“I Survived a Japanese Game Show” (ABC, June 17) — Twelve Americans try to win $250,000 by competing on a Japanese game show. No joke: This show was the big winner at the recent 49th Rose d’Or Festival, one of Europe’s most prestigious TV honors, taking the prize as “Best of 2009” (best show on television — scripted and unscripted), as well as the Rose Trophy for best reality show. Who knew human foosball was that ingenious?

“More to Love” (Fox, July 28) — A dating competition series for “average-looking,” read heavier, Americans billed as a combination of “The Bachelor” and “The Biggest Loser.” Producers say it will shatter the myth that viewers only want to watch highly attractive people.

“I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” (NBC, premiered June 1) — Watch former “American Idol” contestant Sanjaya Malakar, former NBA player John Salley and former model Janice Dickinson, among others, bicker and eat bugs in the Costa Rican jungle to raise money for charity and awareness of their flailing careers.

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