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Summer of Our Discontent

It's a cycle that's been going on as long as I've been watching television. The weather heats up, the big season-ending episodes roll across our screens, and then -- nothing. All silent, but the chirping of the crickets.

Summer has always been a television void. The networks cram our Novembers, Februarys, and Mays with so much stuff that even if you've got a TiVo with a gigantic hard drive and the ability to record two shows at once, you still can't catch it all. And then it's gone, replaced with reruns and -- lately -- cheesy low-budget reality shows.

I have nothing against cheesy low-budget reality shows, per se. Survivor made the summer of 2000 interesting. And the occasional summer-launched non-reality series can make for some enjoyment, a la Northern Exposure way back when.

But networks pay good money for their series, and they want to get that money back. So they litter the summer airwaves with reruns, particularly of series that are coming back for the fall. The cool shows that they killed by airing them up against hits during sweeps months? No, those don't ever get re-run. They're gone forever.

The networks' abdication from the summertime has led people seeking good TV to turn to an alternative: cable. Cable networks now aggressively promote new episodes of their original series during the summer months, knowing that they'll have little competition from the big boys. (Still other people use the summer to realize that they don't need to watch TV at all -- either way, it's bad news for the networks.)

This is not an article about the gems coming across your TV set on basic cable, however. Nor is it a love story about cheesy low-budget reality shows.

No, it's about the arrogance of the networks, who think that a few tossed-off reality shows can offset the stupidity of abandoning the summer to their competitors. Especially when there's perfectly good stuff out there to fill that hole and keep people watching year-round.

These past few months, I've been marveling at the quality of the series on the BBC America cable channel. Many of those shows, like Coupling, Jonathan Creek, and Manchild have aired only recently in the UK. As someone who used to remember that it took about 5 years for a new episode of Doctor Who to wend its way to public TV in the states, it's very cool to realize that the episodes of Coupling I'm laughing at are fresh, aired late last year in Britain.

But then the thought occurs to me. Why in the world is this stuff, in its first run in America, stuck on a channel that's available only on digital cable and satellite? Especially when, in the summertime, America's TV networks have gigantic holes to fill.

Sure, some British series just aren't airable in America, due to the "accent problem." (Much as I love All Creatures Great and Small, you really need to watch a half-dozen episodes of it to begin understanding what those Yorkshire farmers were talking about.) But not all.

Take Jonathan Creek, a mystery series that airs on BBC America and has aired in Britain since 1997. All the characters speak clearly, so that even the untrained American ear can understand every word they say. The series is a clever, hour-long mystery show featuring bizarre crimes that appear to be unsolvable. Enter Jonathan Creek himself, a wild-haired man who makes his living devising magic tricks -- a helpful trait in solving locked-room mysteries.

Every time I watch it, I exclaim that this is a show that my mother and mother-in-law would both love. As would anyone in CBS's audience, especially the old Murder, She Wrote fans and the younger CSI viewers. Why not snap up Jonathan Creek -- they only make a handful of episodes a year, which makes it perfect for the summer -- and air it in July and August after CSI? They did it, way back when, with The Prisoner. Why not do it more?

Because the networks are a bunch of arrogant bastards, that's why. If it's not made in America, they reason, U.S. audiences won't watch. They can't get the accents, and besides which, the foreign stuff just isn't of good enough quality to run in the U.S. Which just isn't true.

Okay, so if the accent thing really scares you off -- wouldn't want to scare so many people off that the network would get a lower rating than a moldy old rerun of The Agency! -- why not look to our own shores for some lively summer content?

No, I told you, enough with the cheesy low-budget reality shows.

I'm talking about your arch-enemies. Well, they'd be your arch-enemies if you didn't own them: the cable networks. Flip around that new network-cable relationship of airing a show once on the airwaves and then again on cable (the practice that, despite all the rumors to the contrary, did not give Once and Again its name) and premiere cable programs on the network.

Think about it. Take whatever financial piece of the action you need to make it worth your while, and give your weaker cable brethren some exposure in return for ratings. Agree to a summer exclusivity window for some cable-developed series, and then let the cable channels run the hell out of the show the rest of the year.

Consider: A new eight-team tournament of Junkyard Wars on ABC. Fox fills the X-Files' abandoned slot with a special six-episode arc of Farscape. And CBS warms the hearts of viewers everywhere with the one-two punch of Emergency Vets and Trading Spaces.

Okay, maybe it'll never happen. But for pete's sake, networks, do something to make yourselves more relevant in the summertime. Or I may turn to the Summer of Sci-Fi one year and never turn back.


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