Networks Fuel Ratings Race

Jun 9, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The dog days of summer used to be firmly leashed to cable networks, who used the season’s absence of new broadcast programming to make their mark with new-series launches and summer-long stunts.
But broadcasters aren’t on vacation anymore and cable networks now have a different battle to fight as their rivals become more aggressive with summer slates this season. That puts the pressure on cablers, who are responding with their most intense lineups ever.
It’s also a summer that will test viewers’ appetites for reality fare. While many in the TV business have claimed the end is nigh for reality, the schedule doesn’t bear that out. Cable networks’ schedules will be filled with assisted, altered and otherwise concocted reality shows, with E!, Game Show Network, Lifetime and even ABC Family Network working the field in the so-called real world.
However, cable will largely stake its claim with scripted series as big players such as FX, USA and Lifetime put forth new scripted series with the goal of building on the success they have found over the past few summers.
“I think it’s just natural that with broadcasters spending summer on reality, this is a chance for us to get some traction,” said Barbara Fisher, executive VP, entertainment, with Lifetime. “I don’t think you are seeing anywhere near the reality you see on broadcast.”
Backed by its $800 million investment in new programming over the next two years, Lifetime will introduce in August “1-800 Missing,” starring Gloria Reuben, and “Wild Card” featuring Joely Fisher. The shows will air Saturday night, giving Lifetime two nights a week now of original dramas, since Sunday-home to “Strong Medicine” and “The Division”-has traditionally been the network’s showcase for original series. “1-800-Missing” focuses on a female FBI agent and her psychic partner, who uses those powers to locate missing people. “Wild Card” tells the story of a former blackjack dealer who must care for her nieces and nephew when her sister is killed in a car accident.
Lifetime also plans to dabble in reality with the makeover show “Head 2 Toe,” premiering July 26.
Coming off its success last summer with “Monk” and “The Dead Zone,” USA aims to defy the law of averages and go three for three total with the July 30 premiere of “Peacemakers,” which takes place as the Western frontier merges into the Industrial Age in the late 1880s and fingerprinting and forensic developments shepherd in a new era in police investigation. Tom Berenger stars.
While the broadcast networks don’t lie down during the summer, they also don’t roll out their biggest guns, said Jeff Wachtel, executive VP, series and long-form programming, for USA. Most of the broadcast fare will be scripted series the networks didn’t believe in enough to air during the regular season and reality shows, he said. “[That] is basically what we competed against last summer,” he said. USA will spend the same amount as last summer to market and promote its new shows, he said.
Still, cable networks will likely need to exercise their promotional strength and emphasize their core differences to stand out this summer, said Ray Solley of the Solley Group, a Los Angeles program development consultant focusing on cable. “The challenge for cable is to say we are just as interesting and credible and just as viewable as all these other shows, and we have them all the time. But we’re not the copycats. We’re not derivative,” he said.
New and fresh programming is the best way to send that message, he said. “I think there will be one or two scripted shows that break out. I think people are still ready to get hooked on some really good series,” he said.
Spike TV, which officially transforms from TNN June 16, intends to attract its largely male audience with a new adult animation block starting June 26. It features “Gary the Rat,” starring Kelsey Grammer, “Stripperella” with Pamela Anderson and the return of “Ren & Stimpy.” With the exception of “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” broadcasters don’t air much animation and the genre represents an opportunity to provide a viable alternative to reality shows and repeats, said Kevin Kay, executive VP, programming and production, for Spike TV.
This summer E! will endeavor to catch viewers’ attention with volume; the network plans at least seven new series launches, including “It’s Good to Be,” a look at what celebrities spend their money on and “Celebrities Uncensored,” a candid glimpse at the daily lives of the stars. Both start in June.
Sister network Style also planned to write its name across the summer schedule with at least four series premieres, including “Style Court,” the network’s answer to “Judge Judy” in which verdicts are dispensed for the fashion-impaired, “Clean House,” an hour-long reality lifestyle show that helps families climb out of the clutter in their homes, debuting in June, and the “Modern’s Girls Guide to Life,” that offers tips for busy women, set for a June unveiling.
“For us to stand out we have to put out fresh new product on a consistent basis,” said Mark Sonnenberg, E!’s executive VP entertainment. E! has been developing new original fare over the past few years and this summer’s bounty represents the fruits of that labor.
“You need to be out there competing with anybody and offer alternative and fresh programming, and to just come up with a couple shows a year is complacent,” she said. While E! avoids the more crowded months like September, November, February and May for launches, programming introduction has become a year-round game.
“[Summer] is still an excellent time and that’s why we are doing so much in the summer, but we’re not relying just on the summer,” said Mr. Sonnenberg. Style, for instance, has introduced a new show every month since February and will follow that pattern through the rest of the year.
In fact, cable’s year-round programming model may be the very thing that insulates programmers from the added pressure this summer. While cable may take a bit of a hit this season, programmers are no longer made or broken by the summer, Mr. Solley said. “In some ways they have to make sure it isn’t stolen out from underneath them and realize there are other times of the year to exploit,” he said.
While most programmers will bang the new originals drum, Turner’s TNT and TBS will not launch any new series this summer. “We believe that the drama brand on TNT speaks louder than a single show,” said Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TNT and TBS. “If you look at the series in the second or third year, they are falling down because they don’t have a consistent schedule to support them. We have worked on a consistent schedule first. We believe original series aren’t important right now.”
ABC Family Channel has a different strategy. The network will embrace the summer opportunity to extend its brand as a destination for families as well as teens. In keeping with its core audience, the channel launched a new teen block from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in late May, anchored by Brendan Leonard. “Dance Fever,” the network’s answer to “American Idol,” will debut July 13. The show is the network’s attempt to find new viewers in the 18 to 34 demo. “In prime time we’ve grown up,” said Linda Mancuso, head of programming at ABC Family Channel.
The network will also air a short documentary/reality series on the wedding of Melissa Joan Hart, star of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” with seven episodes starting July 28, and “Perfect Match,” a relationship show imported from the United Kingdom.