Cable Hits 2004: Breaking Through the Clutter

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

So far in 2004, cable networks have launched a number of shows that have generated buzz and high levels of viewership. They include the profane drama of HBO’s “Deadwood” the cotton-candy fluff of “The Ashlee Simpson Show,” the rough-and-tumble real-life adventure of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and the animated world of “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.”

Until this season started, it seemed as though all breakthrough shows were coming from cable. ABC newcomers are this season’s sensations so far, but some experts say cable networks have set the bar for original programming.

“They set the standard in reality programming, inventing it first. They’re the ones that have managed to not have to have procedural drama in order to have a drama work,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP and director of Starcom Entertainment.

“The next big thing on the horizon for cable is that they are trying to reinvent the half-hour format,” she said, pointing to untraditional comedies such as “Entourage” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO. While broadcast network execs seem more apt to wait for the next “Cosby,” the new and different comedy “will probably come from someone like FX or Spike,” she said.

Broadcast and cable execs don’t see eye to eye on many things, including the definition of a hit show. With its broader distribution, promotional weight and habituated audience, even the most mediocre broadcast program draws higher ratings than almost anything on cable.

In this report, TelevisionWeek editors pick eight of the top new cable hits-shows that had their debuts in 2004 and appear in prime time. These shows have significantly boosted their network’s time periods, which is the way cable executives measure the success of new programs.

Of course, buzz is a factor as well. These are shows the industry and viewers are talking about.

Even though some off-network series, including “CSI” and “Fear Factor,” are having a big impact on their networks’ ratings, the focus here is on cable-original shows. Most executives believe those are the ones that build a strong brand.

“If you have a smart strategy and you have an original series or even a miniseries that truly is tied into that strategy, it’s a home run. The whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts,” said Bonnie Hammer, president, USA Network and Sci Fi Channel.

“It kind of distinguishes you in terms of the cable world. It creates a level of differentiation so that when you’re being sold to affiliates, when the boys go out for an upfront, when somebody asks why should we buy USA over Turner, it’s clear. There’s something to point to,” Ms. Hammer said.

This year USA had a hit with “The 4400,” which will join “Monk” and “The Dead Zone” as pat of the foundation of Ms. Hammer’s attempt to forge an identity for USA.

Sci Fi had a hit as well with “Stargate Atlantis,” which Ms. Hammer calls cable’s first successful spinoff program.

Those shows were among the highlights of what Ms. Caraccioli-Davis called an incredible year for cable, with new shows blossoming and older programs, such as “Nip/Tuck” on FX and “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central, displaying staying power.

“There’s an entire generation that seeks their original programming from cable,” she said. “At some point sometimes we like to believe in the myth that people go to broadcast first and cable second. But when randomly you ask people what their favorite channel is, they’re more [likely] to name a cable network than they are a broadcast network.”

Ms. Hammer concurred, noting that some of the biggest names in show business have become more enthusiastic about working with cable networks. She said cable also can be more flexible in its scheduling, which allows networks to experiment more.

“Like with `The 4400,’ we didn’t have to commit to a full series. We could test it out,” she said. “In success, it gives you a lot of freedom.”