The Joys Of Summer: No More (Ok, Fewer) Reruns

Not long ago, summer came with only a few easy-to-follow instructions: Do not eat oysters. Do not expect the Cubs to win. And do not look for anything decent to watch on network television. Like schoolteachers and ice-hockey players, the networks have mostly skipped out on summer, leaving the rest of us to wallow in three months of reruns. Now, just in time for the new millennium--or, more important, just as the wonderfully hormonal "Sex and the City" threatens to lure even more viewers to HBO--the networks are finally getting with the programming. Almost a dozen new shows are scheduled to debut before Labor Day, from sitcoms to dramas, game shows to reality programs. "Viewers will watch in the summer," says Marc Berman, an independent programming consultant, "if they're offered good options instead of leftover garbage."

Much as the TV world hates to give him any more credit, the new summer programming probably wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Regis Philbin. After "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" became a megahit last August, the networks finally woke up to the fact that lots of people still watch TV in the off-season. That doesn't mean it's easy for a summer program to make it. With competition from blockbuster movies and family vacations, TV traditionally loses up to 25 percent of its viewers during the warmer months. And then there's the summer stigma: since the programming has long been lousy, it's an uphill battle to convince people that these shows are watchable. After all, if the programs are so great, why didn't the networks air them during sweeps?

Yet for the right shows, summertime can be prime time. "It's hard to get people's attention for a new show. We feel like we can break out in the summer," says Susanne Daniels, president of entertainment for the WB, which is launching two new programs: the animated "Baby Blues" and the "Dawson's Creek"-like "Young Americans." Smaller audiences can also be a blessing in disguise. With lower expectations--and advertising rates--the networks can take a chance on more offbeat fare. "You're playinyg in the $1 poker game, not the $100 poker game," says CBS Television president Leslie Moonves. CBS is launching two reality shows this summer, "Survivor" and "Big Brother," which are calculated risks for TV's oldest-skewing network. "It's inexpensive programming. If it works, great. If it doesn't, we're happy we tried it."

But let the viewer beware: not all summer programs are created equal. The networks have long used the dog days as a dumping ground for unaired episodes of shows they've given up on or pilots that never made the grade. The networks may call these shows new, but in fact they're siphoning lousy leftovers. It's a process called "burning off." Don't be burned by underwhelming programs such as "Time of Your Life" and "Love & Money." They'll be aired over the next few months--and never seen again.

No wonder some people are less than thrilled to have their shows airing this summer. Kevin Smith, who has created an animated TV version of his 1994 slacker movie "Clerks," is blasting ABC for airing his show now. "Nobody is watching TV in the summer," says Smith. "Unless Christ himself gives it God's holy blessing, the show is dead." On the other hand, another refugee from the movies, Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex"), says he's perfectly happy to have his sitcom, "M.Y.O.B.," debuting this week. The darkly sassy story of a manipulative high-school girl and her emotionally needy aunt, "M.Y.O.B."--for "mind your own business"--is just the kind of smart but somewhat off-putting show that might flounder against more traditional sitcoms. "It's a bit unusual," says NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier. "I'd like it to be on when it faces less conventional competition and people will give it a try." At least one person is hedging her bet. "M.Y.O.B." star Lauren Graham has already signed up for the WB show "Gilmore Girls." It debuts--when else?--next fall.