This is so not how it's done in ''The O.C.'' Last August, Fox's breakout soap attracted 8.4 million viewers, helping fuel network programmers' fantasies about summer's power to launch new shows. Alas, no new Fox series this summer -- scripted or otherwise -- has come close to matching ''The O.C.'''s sizzling debut: ''The Jury,'' at 3.7 million, appears ready to declare a mistrial; only 4.7 million people are testing the waters of ''North Shore''; just 5 million viewers are placing their bets on ''The Casino.'' And the other networks' summer originals (we're using that term lightly) aren't doing much better: NBC's ''For Love or Money 3'' and ''Who Wants to Marry My Dad?'' are down 22 percent and 18 percent, respectively, versus their debuts a year ago, while ABC's ''The Ultimate Love Test'' has seen a double-digit drop from the same time slot last year.
For all the talk about year-round programming -- not to mention the death of the sitcom -- most originals are down in viewers this summer, while reruns, of all things, are up. Of the 10 most-watched shows in the last two months, only ''The Amazing Race'' is completely original. ''CSI'' remains the most popular show at 14.8 million, followed by ''Without a Trace'' and ''CSI: Miami'' (both at 12.9 million). ''Honestly, I'm not surprised,'' says Fox's scheduling guru Preston Beckman. ''Episodic procedural dramas and hit comedies have always repeated well. I think the big reality successes of the past few summers made it seem like repeats are dead.'' The obvious dividend for CBS? Between its stellar repeats and returning reality shows (''The Amazing Race'' and ''Big Brother 5'' are pulling 10.3 million and 9.5 million, respectively), the network has a strong promotional platform for launching a fall schedule. NBC can rely on the strength of ''Law & Order'' repeats, but other than ''Last Comic Standing'' (8.9 million viewers and on the fall schedule), the net has had little luck landing a solid summer reality franchise to help plug its new season. ''It's tricky with reality. There is such a high burn rate,'' says NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly. ''It's a judgment call. Is it the next Survivor franchise, or, God forbid, is it another ''Joe Millionaire'' where you've been there, done that?''
Fox has taken the greatest risk, launching five new shows -- including ''North Shore'' (its returning reality series ''The Simple Life 2'' is a bright spot, up 45 percent in its time slot) -- as a way to get a head start on fall and avoid its usual October nightmare, when baseball takes over (and viewers forget to come back to Fox's series). ''History shows that a network that's patient will be rewarded,'' says Beckman. ''If you won't give your shows time to find an audience, you shouldn't have put them on in the first place.''
''Fox is right,'' adds NBC's Reilly. ''They just didn't have the shows to back up the strategy. But we've got to program in the summer.''
In the meantime, says Beckman, ''it's going to take viewers a while to accept that the networks are not just putting on scripted shows in the summer to burn them off. The fact that we brought our new shows on so quickly may have led to the false perception that these are not long-term projects for the network. But they are.'' Which isn't exactly reassuring if you've seen Fox's new comedy ''Quintuplets.''