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Taking on Broadcasters

Sep 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

“The is the first year that I’ve ever contemplated doing what I’m doing,” said Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT. “We’re not afraid of the big bad wolf.”

The wolf at Mr. Koonin’s door is the broadcast network’s fall media onslaught, the September-October new programming barrage that historically makes basic cable go quiet. This year, TBS is launching two reality efforts in October, “He’s a Lady” and “The Mansion,” with its keystone effort, “The Real Gilligan’s Island,” to follow in November.

And TBS is not alone. VH1, E! Networks, TBS, Nickelodeon, Court TV, Comedy Central, TLC, Spike TV, Fine Living and others have announced new original series premieres planned for September and October.

“We used to be like turtles-we’d go back into our shell,” Mr. Koonin said. “[Television] was like a retail mall for viewers and the big department stores had closed for summer, so all our little boutiques could open. But now cable is beating broadcast in the summer, and if cable only sticks its head out during summer, broadcast gets nine months unabated.”

Due to cable’s constantly shifting landscape and myriad networks, no figures are available for exactly how many original series have debuted in falls past. But taking a look at Television Critics Association summer tours, where cable networks typically showcase their most significant upcoming wares, past schedules show that fall series launches are increasingly common.

In 2001 and 2002, for example, only a handful of original series were showcased at TCA for a fall launch; most were scheduled for summer or late winter. The few series that took the plunge were typically on niche networks such as the History Channel or Food Network.

This fall, Comedy Central has two new series premiering in October. Lauren Corrao, senior VP of programming and head of development for the network, said she doesn’t see fall as a new frontier so much as one part of a newly year-round game.

“There really isn’t a time that’s easy anymore-you’re running during midseason, big sports playoffs, summer season, all the time,” she said. “Our biggest month so far this year was May. We used to avoid May. Maybe that’s not something we need to avoid anymore.”

Sean Cunningham, CEO and president of the Cable Advertising Bureau, noted the fall trend could also be a reflection of the total increase in cable network output. “With each successive quarter, more and more gets launched,” he said.

Interestingly, CAB ratings research shows overall cable viewership has not significantly dropped off from summer to winter in the past three years.

In 2003, for instance, ad-supported cable had a 29.9 household rating in July and August, then went to 28.8 in September and October-a drop of less than 4 percent. In 2002, that figure was 7 percent.

For kids networks, the story is a little different.

Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television, said fall presents an opportunity to gain viewers as after-school viewing habits are formed.

“Our strategy is based on the cycle of a kid’s life over the course of a year,” Ms. Zarghami said. “The fall is tricky. While we don’t want to get lost in the noise, we also know kids are going back to school. So we have two new shows premiering in early September.”

And this year she has plenty of company.