Until recently, prime-time television in the summer was the equivalent of the seconds rack at the department store: flawed and largely unwanted goods. But this year summer TV on the networks has the look of a busy outlet shop: People seem to like the merchandise, and they're buying.
At least four series introduced as summer entries have scored well enough to receive orders for new episodes, guaranteeing that this will be the first successful crop of shows ever introduced in the summer months. Two years ago, when the experiment was first tried, only one show was picked up in the fall; last year none made the transit.
"Summer is absolutely becoming a viable time to launch new shows," said Leslie Moonves, president of Lorimar Television. Lorimar produces one of the shows that has broken through this summer, a CBS police drama called "Bodies of Evidence."
Up to now few shows had managed to transfer from summer into the regular television season because viewers tended to regard them as inherently second rate, which in most cases they were.
But David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of research for CBS, said his network had come to realize that summer had several business and creative advantages. Among them are the chance to get shows sampled free of the intense competition of the fall and an opportunity to let a new show run for six or seven weeks to see if could build a following.
"I think you're going to see more and more shows going in the summer," Mr. Poltrack said, "as long as we can find a way to make the economics work."
He said the summer could provide the networks, which have been searching for ways to reduce costs in the face of declining profits, with a new way to develop and promote shows at lower cost.
CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox have all tried various strategies for bringing on more non-repeat programming in June, July and August.
NBC has tried to use the surge of viewing around the Olympics to stoke interest in several continuing series, as well as in two new shows being given short runs this summer before they go on officially in September.
ABC had no formal summer series lined up but held over several shows it had intended to introduce last spring. One of these, the comedy/drama "Jack's Place," has done so well as the Tuesday at 10 p.m. entry that the network has ordered new episodes of the series, which it expects to add to its regular lineup as soon as one of the new-season shows fails.
Fox has always used the summer to begin the runs of many of its strongest shows, including its hit "Beverly Hills 90210," which started in midsummer two seasons ago. Fox added a companion show, "Melrose Place," this summer, hoping to build a new night of programming on Wednesdays. That has worked so well that Fox moved "Beverly Hills" permanently to Wednesday from its previous spot on Thursdays to pair it with "Melrose."
At the same time, a new Fox comedy called "Down the Shore" has done well enough this summer for the network to order 13 more episodes of the show.
"The issue for us at Fox has always been to offer an alternative to what was on the networks." said Sandy Grushow, the executive vice president of Fox Entertainment. "In the summer, while they were dumping their failed pilots, we have been starting up our series, trying to bring viewers back to the set."
CBS has tried more directly to use summer as a lab for experiments. Two years ago that method produced "Northern Exposure," now the biggest dramatic hit on television.
This summer it has so far produced two shows that the network has invited back into the regular television season: "Bodies of Evidence" and "Raven." The latter, an action show heavy on martial arts, did so well, CBS immediately decided to use it regularly on Saturdays at 9, replacing a show called "Dr. Quinn."
CBS can save money by using "Raven" at the start of the new season because it has already been introduced to the public, Mr. Poltrack explained.
"We can save a lot on promotion costs when we have to introduce so many other new shows," he said.
For this summer plan to work economically, the summer shows have to be made on much smaller budgets. A show that CBS would pay about $900,000 for in the regular season only gets about $750,000 in the summer.
That forces producers to keep costs down. Actors and writers are asked to take less in salary, with a guarantee they will be raised to regular-season pay levels if a show hits in summer and is invited back.
Mr. Moonves said a big studio like Lorimar had an advantage in doing a summer series on a lesser budget because it could use other assets to defray costs. For example, no new sets were built for "Bodies of Evidence." Instead, the show used existing sets from Lorimar shows on program hiatus, including "Reasonable Doubts" and "Sisters."
David Jacobs, one of TV's most successful drama producers ("Dallas," "Knots Landing"), is making his first summer series in "Bodies of Evidence." He said: "I think it's an interesting way to get started. It's like a little lab. It forces you to write the shows much better because you don't have as much money for action scenes."
CBS has also sought help from advertisers to back summer shows. Two years ago the network was able to persuade Procter & Gamble to put up part of the license fee for "Northern Exposure." This year it made a similar deal with General Motors for "Bodies of Evidence."
All of this activity in the summer reflects the conviction that the absence of intense competition offers
an opportunity to attract attention, if nothing else, during the summer. Indeed, almost every new series tried this summer, even those that failed, started off much stronger than the repeats of the shows they replaced.
The idea that a show can attract publicity in the summer has been behind many of the moves cable networks have made to introduce movies and programs in the summer months.
This summer HBO has another extremely promising new entry, the "Larry Sanders Show" a satire on late-night talk shows, starring Garry Shandling. The show has received the best reviews of any new summer series and will likely be picked up by HBO for more episodes when it ends its first 13 shows in November.