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REPORT: Summer-TV Watchers are Abandoning Cable Shows [INFOGRAPHIC]

Summer used to be cable’s time to shine, but ratings are down by double digits with competition from broadcast networks and streaming services

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The cable-TV industry has the summertime blues.

Ratings are down by double digits at many of the top cable channels as increased competition from the broadcast networks and the growing popularity of streaming services such a Netflix and Hulu have cut into their audiences.

In addition, June through August is when viewers are tapping their digital video recorders and checking out video-on-demand to sample the shows they missed during the traditional fall-to-spring television season.

“People are getting used to using summer to binge view and catch-up,” said Billie Gold, a vice president and director of programming at Dentsu Inc., an advertising and media-buying firm. That means less time spent watching new shows on cable networks.

In July, 21 of the top 30 most-watched cable channels saw significant declines in prime-time ratings, according to Nielsen. Time Warner Inc.’s TNT, the most-watched cable channel in prime time for the month, experienced a 22% drop from July 2014. Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Channel lost 19% of its audience, Comcast Corp.’s Bravo was down 23% and Viacom Inc.’s MTV fell 24%. The ratings declines were similar among the key demographic of adults age 18 to 49.

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Many programs are starting to show signs of age including TNT’s “Rizzoli & Isles” and A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” FX’s “The Comedians” starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad was canceled after one summer run, and its second-year drama “The Strain” has stumbled. AMC’s new drama “Humans” has been underwhelming and after a strong start E!’s “I Am Cait” about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has cooled.

Summer used to be cable’s time to shine. While there are typically fewer viewers watching TV in the summer than in other seasons, many cable networks found a winning strategy by launching original programming while broadcast networks hung the “gone fishing” sign.

Networks including AMC, FX and USA took advantage of the less-crowded playing field to establish many of their own original hits. “Mad Men,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Monk” all made their debuts in the summer.

In recent years, network broadcasters have become more aggressive and now program the summer with big-budget scripted shows as well as their usual slate of lower-cost reality programming. Fox’s “Wayward Pines” and CBS’s “Zoo” posted solid numbers. ABC’s “The Bachelorette” and a prime-time version of the game show “Family Feud” were big hits, and NBC’s almost 10-year old “America’s Got Talent” still has life in it.

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The only network to show a big gain for July was Discovery Channel, which benefited from the popularity of its shark-themed programming. In July, Disney’s ABC, 21st Century Fox Inc.’s Fox and the CW, a joint-venture between Time Warner and CBS Corp., all increased viewership, and CBS and Comcast’s NBC were only down 4% and 5%, respectively.

Keeping younger viewers has been tougher. Fox, which benefited from the Women’s World Cup, and ABC were the only networks up with adults 18 to 49. CBS was down 15% and Fox 8%, while NBC and the CW were flat.

“The bar has been raised,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank. If networks take the summer off, “you run the risk of losing more audience” when the fall season rolls around and viewers have been watching other channels with fresh content, he said.

The rise of new content in the summer comes as the number of people watching traditional media is on the decline.

“It does seem like an awful lot of new content for a relativity small audience,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast investment for OMD, which buys commercial time.

Some network executives suggest that the rules that define success need changing. Speaking at the semiannual Television Critics Association media tour earlier this month, FX Networks Chief Executive John Landgraf said it takes two months of ratings data to really determine whether a show is clicking with viewers. He noted that the audience for “American Horror Story” went from 7 million viewers in live and three days of recorded viewing to 12.6 million after 60 days of recorded, streaming and video-on-demand consumption. FX Networks is a unit of 21st Century Fox.

Advertisers primarily pay for commercials using a formula based on the live audience plus three days of recorded viewing. The networks are having some success now selling same day plus seven days of recorded viewing. Mr. Landgraf thinks even that model is outdated and will fade in the future as targeted advertising becomes more technologically viable.

“As you can start marketing to individual people who are the appropriate people to tell about your products, you don’t care basically whether they’re watching the fourth season of ‘The Americans’ or first season of ‘The Americans,’” he said.

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