The beginning of the school year is a weird time to talk about report cards, I know. But it's the perfect moment for a progress report on summer TV, which saw major gains in viewership this year, often thanks to cable TV. According to a ratings report released by Turner — which is, I know, a cable TV company that owns the TCM and TNT channels, among others — the average person watched 32.2 hours of TV this summer, up 12 minutes from last year and 144 minutes from five years ago. As the summer season passes fitfully into fall TV madness (bye, bye Rescue Me this week, hello Melrose Place remake next week) it seems a good time to reflect on what we learned after months obsessing on Burn Notice while trying to avoid too much Big Brother exposure.
, Nurses rule. Edie Falco's amazing turn as a drug-addicted caregiver on Showtime's Nurse Jackie continued the potent argument made by Weeds and Dexter that HBO ain't the only premium cable channel you might want to spend money for.
. Turns out, vampires don't suck. HBO's Louisiana vampire drama True Blood, with Anna Paquin, has flowered this year, mostly with an all-powerful villainess who can make townspeople burst into orgies at any time. A little skin never hurts ratings, especially on the home of Cathouse and Real Sex.
Basic cable quality brings eyeballs. USA's Burn Notice and Royal Pains are among the biggest basic cable success stories this summer, along with Syfy's Warehouse 13 and TNT's Dark Blue, The Closer and Hawthorne. Quality dramas may be too expensive or audience-challenged for the big networks, but they're working out just fine for cable TV.
. Tampa Bay folks on reality TV. Unscripted TV's love affair with Floridians hit a major speed bump on CBS' Big Brother, when St. Petersburg's Casey Turner, top, and Brandon resident Jessie Godderz were ousted within weeks of each other. The good news: This critic didn't have to waste precious hours of life watching that empty-headed exercise anymore.
Cable news noise. Right-leaning Fox News in particular has benefited from the summer's heated debate on health care, with a 37 percent ratings jump this summer compared to last year, according to Turner (liberal-friendly MSNBC rose 16 percent). But the way partisan tones have skewed coverage over everything from health care reform to Sen. Ted Kennedy's death haven't served viewers best, no matter what news channel they watch.
Reality TV's disintegrating families. Whether it was Jon and Kate Gosselin's mid-life crisis writ large on TLC, the Octomom arguing with her mother on Fox or the Hogans dueling on Brooke's VH1 series, splintering families weren't very entertaining this summer. Don't producers realize we use TV to escape family problems?