Golden Age of television or no, this summer has not been a proud time for the traditional small screen. A couple of days ago, the writer/blogger Ken Levine wrote up a few notes on the summer’s surprise hit adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome. “Since the dome is invisible can’t the town communicate with the outside world by just holding up notes?” he quite reasonably asked, since a subplot revolves around the health of a crappy ham radio. It descended from there. And yet Under the Dome is highly rated. The audience has shrunk somewhat from the premiere but not much, going from about 13 million to about 11 million.
Then, there’s the example of Sharknado. It had nowhere near the reach of Under the Dome, clocking in at only about a million and a half viewers. But on a hot summer night when we were all indoors writing inanities on Twitter, it managed to catch the attention of no less than Mia Farrow. The PR push from all the “influencers” writing about it has now ensured that we’ll see a sequel.
The summer hiatus has a romantic place in Hollywood history, of course. But network television executives need to break up with it as far as programming goes. Where back in the golden era of American summer we’d all have spent our days and evenings outside, global warming has made it hot as hell lately. So we’re all indoors, trapped with only the dulcet tones of the air conditioner to relax us, and in need of entertainment. PLEASE HELP US, MEN IN SUITS. And by “us,” I mean those of us who still think (sorry, Slate) that blockbusters are so bad that our only hope for passing the time is watching TV. And we have needs that exceed what Under the Dome and Sharknado are putting out there.
Sure, we are getting a few paltry episodes of Breaking Bad this summer. And fans of Dexter and The Newsroom are getting fixes. But by far the most interesting show “on the air” right now, at least to the chattering classes, is actually Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. It might be true that if there were a full slate of new television on right now, a Netflix series might not get as much attention as it has been. And we don’t have real numbers yet on how many people are actually streaming Orange Is the New Black. But what we do know is that by fitting itself into the schedule with a new, ambitious, and popular show smack in the middle of the month when we’re all supposed to be at our summer houses, Netflix has made its bones as the new kid in town. And I have a feeling there are some quaking knees in certain boardrooms about what’s going to happen with traditional television distribution channels as a result.
The first major network that ought to follow Netflix into the sticky embrace of summer is NBC. It’s been trying to position itself as the network that will do a highbrow show or two — for all its past, present, and future faults, shows like Hannibal and Dracula are attempts to lure back some of the audience that disappeared to True Blood and Game of Thrones. But the thing is, once its expensive-cast, high-production-value shows return in the fall, NBC will be competing with Boardwalk Empire on HBO and Homeland on Showtime. And with everyone’s jobs picking up again and the weather evening out, there’ll only be so much time to spend indoors.