Even before the networks discovered the profit center called reruns, star performers worked no more than 39 weeks a year, then, like teachers, took the summer off, leaving their timeslots to the summer replacements.
In the 1950s, Ernie Kovacs' first prime-time show was a fill-in for “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” "Commando Cody: Air Marshal of the Universe" recycled a theatrical serial back when most Hollywood studios didn't allow their full-length films onto the new media. Then there was the "Summer Playhouse" series, showing series pilots that didn't sell, back in the day when the networks were apparently less ashamed of them.
Now, with HBO and other cable channels saving some of their best shows for the summer, things have changed. But the underwhelming response to Fox's summer season and the domination of reality shows like "Amish in the City" and "Trading Spouses" still leaves these months looking like Dog Days.
But some great television has graced summer nights in the past, sometimes earning year-round homes on the schedule, sometimes just standing honorably as performances that could never be encored. Here are my picks for the best 10 summer shows ever — and one that earns the title of absolute worst.
10. “The Amazing Race,” 2003 & 2004The second greatest comeback on summer TV (#4 is first, but don't peek), as well as the second best competition (#6 is the first, but again, don't peek!), is the favorite reality show among critics and the Emmys, but was knocked out of its time slot by "Star Search" in January 2003, and an entire 12-week race was burned off during the summer.
But a funny thing happened on the way to hiatus hell.
People watched, and CBS gave the go-ahead for another summer "Race" this year. Then, before even airing the current shows, the network watched them, and decided to put the show back on the 2004 fall schedule.
9. “The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine,” 1971After introducing himself to America on Dean Martin's regular summer replacement "The Golddiggers," Marty Feldman got his own summer show, a US/UK co-production with a transatlantic team of talents, including Spike Milligan, who co-starred with Peter Sellers in the British radio classic "The Goon Show," and future superstar directors Barry Levinson (writing and performing) and Terry Gilliam (doing Pythonesque animations, naturally), all overseen by Larry Gelbart, a year before he developed "M*A*S*H" for television.
The result: a collection of comedy as subtle as Feldman's hook nose and lazy eye, was considered by some to be "Monty Python Lite," but it went far to prepare us for "Python's" debut on American TV a year later.
8. “Hee Haw,” 1969One of television's classic , "Hee Haw" copied Laugh-In with a hillbilly/redneck flavor that Jeff "Blue Collar" Foxworthy wishes he could equal. Singers Buck Owens and Roy Clark fronted a massive cast that ranged from the legendary Minnie Pearl to the questionable Junior Samples.
It was such a ratings success that CBS couldn't resist giving it a year-round time slot, and was also such an embarrassment to the so-called Tiffany Network that it ultimately led to a schedule-wide overhaul that cancelled all rural-based shows, even the slyly satirical "Green Acres."
7. “Northern Exposure,” 1990The cult-hit dramedy about the quirky inhabitants of a small Alaskan town aired its first eight episodes in the summer of 1990, with the next seven in spring 1991. CBS was understandably unsure how this show from the creators of "St. Elsewhere" would go over, so they put it on when nothing else was happening (except, ironically, for the beginnings of #2 — no peeking!).
But the audience warmed to the outcast show as much as the locals warmed to Rob Morrow's Dr. Fleischman. And besides, what's more refreshing during a long hot summer than a visit to Cicely, Alaska?
6. The Summer Olympics, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 & 2004The 1936 Berlin Olympics were the first sports event televised anywhere, and in 1972, America watched the Games live for the first time as Mark Spitz won seven gold metals and terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes.
More often than not, the latest Olympiad is praised as the "Best Olympics Ever." It helps to be a sports fan, and not just of one of America's overexposed team sports (although basketball addicts do OK).
This summer, NBC is trying to make it easier to see the sports you like best and miss the ones you hate, with coverage on not just its broadcast net but most of its cable channels: USA, Bravo, CNBC and MSNBC (Disclosure: If I were really kissing up to this site's owners, this would be #1 on the list). In 2008, Olympic Jetpack Racing will probably be shown on the Sci-Fi Channel.
5. “The Avengers,” 1966In the late 1960s, each of the three networks imported one British spy show. NBC had Roger Moore in "The Saint," CBS had Patrick McGoohan in "Secret Agent" (titled "Danger Man" in the U.K.), and ABC had "The Avengers."
Having already run for four years in Britain, the show had evolved from a standard espionage/mystery into a fantastic mix of spies and sci-fi, and, after multiple cast changes, had matched up Patrick Macnee as the high-tea British John Steed with Diana Rigg as uber-action babe and fashion victor Emma Peel.
Because "Avengers" was still being filmed in black and white, ABC banished it to the off-season, airing the first 23 American episodes from March 28 - Sept. 1, and "The Avengers" didn't make ABC's fall schedule until 1969, months after Diana Rigg left the series, and then scheduled opposite ratings juggernaut "Laugh-In."
4. “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour ,” 1971Summer variety shows used to be as numerous as fall season variety shows, usually headed by pop music acts, from Liberace in 1951 to The Starland Vocal Band in 1977. "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" gave an annual break from the controversial humor of "The Smothers Brothers Show," while giving most of that show's crew year-round work.
But the most successful summer variety show ever had to be the comeback vehicle for a rock-and-roll couple act that hadn't had a hit in three years.
Sonny and Cher's comic reparteé had been tested in Las Vegas lounges, and they recruited writers and performers from the cancelled "Smothers" (including Steve Martin) to put together a show that was both pop-culture-hip and network-friendly. When Cher started a new string of solo hit records, promoted by her performances on the show, everything came together, at least for a while.
3. “The Prisoner,” 1968After Patrick McGoohan quit "Secret Agent," CBS picked up his 17-episode limited series "The Prisoner." Unenthusiastic about a series that couldn't be renewed for another season, the network dumped it in the summer of 1968.
Surreal, paranoid and subtly political, McGoohan's masterpiece portrayed life in the country-club-prison/psychological-battleground "The Village," as experienced by high-priority/high-maintenance inmate Number Six.
The fact that the series actually ended at the end of the summer was almost as mind-blowing to the American audience as the spooky white balloons that patrolled The Village's perimeter. And, as far as surprise endings go, Mr. Shyamalan, your is no match for McGoohan's Village.
2. “Seinfeld,” 1989, 1990, 1992Now that it is universally accepted as one of the greatest TV sitcoms ever, many people forget how much trouble the adventures of Jerry and his friends had getting on the air. The pilot, originally titled "The Seinfeld Chronicles," without Julia Louis-Dreyfus and with Michael Richards' character called "Kessler", was shown in July 1989, and the next four episodes did not get aired until after the 1990 May sweeps.
When it finally made it to NBC's regular schedule in January 1991, "Seinfeld" aired on Wednesdays, not reaching Must See TV Thursday or the Nielsen Top 10 until mid-season 1993. In the meantime, the two-part trip to Hollywood episode was first aired in August 1992. No wonder Jason Alexander's character made such a big deal about "the Summer of George."
Before we get to the #1 show, here is the WORST summer show in TV history:
“You're in the Picture,” 1961This show is tied in perpetuity for the record for shortest running series on television (at just one episode, naturally).
The Jackie Gleason-hosted game show featured a celebrity panel who stuck their heads through holes in a large picture and tried to guess what was around them.
But the live broadcast was such an ordeal for the famously temperamental Gleason that he ended the first show by apologizing to the audience for what they had just seen and promising there would be no second show.
1. Apollo 11, July 16-24, 1969It was the ultimate TV event, the biggest TV audience ever (over a half-billion), the longest-distance live remote broadcast possible, and for decades afterwards, everyone would remember exactly where they were when it happened. (Unlike most other such events, from the Kennedy Assassination to the World Trade Center attacks, it was good news).
Due to cosmic limitations to the launch schedule, Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so it was also the latest that an entire generation of children was allowed to stay up to watch TV. One very big step for television.
is the online alias of a writer living in southern California