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Cable Debates Originals vs. Off-Net

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As broadcasters and cable networks find good news in the summer ratings data, a debate is quietly brewing among some cable channels over whether original programming is key to continuing ratings momentum.
Cable networks and broadcasters alike came to rely on first-run programming more than ever this summer to help drive ratings during a three-month period that was once relegated strictly to reruns. Both cable and broadcast are boasting that their use of original content helped their summertime ratings performance, with cable as a group continuing to strengthen its lead among adults 18 to 49 in share while broadcast slowed its year-over-year ratings decline. However, summer ratings data are raising questions about whether cable’s use of original programming is, in fact, working. Based on an analysis of Nielsen Media Research’s numbers, one veteran research chief suggested that cable networks’ original programming efforts might be generating only modest results.
“To deliver good numbers, you need good licensed product,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer of Turner Broadcasting. “Original programming won’t save a network.”
But rival cable network executives disagree, claiming that without original programming few cable channels would be able to carve out a niche for themselves and, thus, retain and ultimately build audiences.
“Original programming on a basic cable network has two functions: deliver eyeballs and audience for advertisers and raise the profile of the network for cable affiliates and subscribers,” said Peter Liguori, president and CEO of FX Networks. “It’s incumbent on us in cable to really push the creative envelope to create a breakthrough show.”
Echoing Mr. Liguori’s sentiment, Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television’s executive VP of research, said generating ratings is only part of the strategy behind original programming.
“Original programming is absolutely at the heart and soul of what has driven incredible growth at cable channels,” he said. “It brings people to the network. If you take out the original programming, you take away the branding. A cable channel has never been branded by `Law & Order’ because it has lived in so many places.”
The debate comes as preliminary summer ratings data show that ad-supported, basic cable channels had an 18 share point lead over the seven broadcasters-ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB, UPN and Pax-for the three-month period between May 26 and Aug. 24, with cable garnering a 54.8 share of prime-time household viewing vs. broadcast’s 37 share. Among viewers 18-49, basic cable scored a 15 rating compared with broadcast’s 10.6 rating.
While broadcasters continued to lose viewers to cable, they were able to find some reasons to celebrate, as the year-over-year slide in ratings slowed this summer to under 3 percent compared with declines of 13 percent in previous years.
Tom Bierbaum, director of ratings information at NBC, pointed out that the slowdown in the ratings slide occurred when the National Basketball Association finals attracted a small audience. He also noted that broadcasters this summer lacked super-hits such as last year’s “American Idol” and that this summer featured a lot more first-run programming from the broadcasters, which helped prevent viewers from jumping over to cable.
“We still made progress slowing down the rate of [audience] shrinking at the seven networks,” he said.
The debate over cable’s foray into original programming was sparked by Mr. Wakshlag’s analysis of Nielsen’s data. He and his team tracked the time-slot ratings performance of a number of original series before and after the series debuted and reached the conclusion that original programming wasn’t significantly changing many cable networks ratings. For example, Lifetime’s “1-800-Missing” has time slot ratings that are 7 percent lower this summer for audiences 18-49 than a year ago. At FX, the now-canceled series “Lucky ” produced a 54 percent ratings drop in the demo for its time period.
The data also show that successfully launched cable original series from last year have lost steam in their second season. USA Network’s “Monk” has seen its ratings slip 12 percent among adults 18-49 from a year ago, while its series “Dead Zone” has tumbled 40 percent in the demo. MTV’s “The Osbournes” saw its 18-49 audience sink 50 percent.
By comparison, Mr. Wakshlag pointed out that Turner’s TBS and TNT networks have relied less on original programming and more on movies and licensed content such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Law & Order” to help maintain their top ratings positions.
However, TNT and TBS aren’t abandoning original content. While TBS shut down its movie production operation, executives at Turner say they are exploring the development of original scripted series and some reality programming for the two cable networks.
Executives at the cable networks deploying more original program acknowledge that some hot series have cooled since their debuts. They suggest that the reason, however, is increased competition from other cable networks testing the waters of original series development.