Cable Star Fades in Network Fight

Nov 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In the weeks leading up to “Battlestar Galactica’s” third-season premiere, the debut seemed like a slam dunk to set Sci Fi Channel records.

Shepherded by Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer, the show has been hailed as a darkly sophisticated remake of the campy and short-lived 1978 original series. The most recent 20-episode second season averaged 2.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Though that was down from the 2.8 million of the 12-episode first season, media buzz about the show had been building throughout 2006.

Sci Fi was so confident in the show’s success, the network scheduled the third season to debut Oct. 5, right in the middle of the broadcast fall season’s premiere bombardment.

At first, “Battlestar” seemed to hold its own against the broadcast hype. Advance review copies of the first four episodes generated an unprecedented amount of preseason publicity, especially for a basic cable program. On Metacritic, a Web site that tracks reviews, “Battlestar’s” third-season premiere was averaging a score of 94 out of 100 points, behind only HBO’s “The Wire.” “Battlestar” even made the cover of Entertainment Weekly, a Sci Fi Channel first.

Then came the ratings.

The third-season debut was down 29 percent among total viewers compared with the season-two debut in July 2005. Viewership for the first four episodes of the new season is down 20 percent compared with the first few episodes of season two.

A likely culprit for the decline of “Battlestar” was the start of the broadcast season Sept. 19. After experimenting for a few years with rolling shows out more sporadically, this year broadcasters came out guns blazing during an intense, short period with a barrage of shows, many of which were lavish serialized action-dramas-just like “Battlestar.” Making matters more interesting: Two of the season’s breakout dramas, NBC’s “Heroes” and CBS’s “Jericho,” have sci-fi themes.

Cable networks traditionally don’t run original dramas in fall out of fear of getting trounced. In recent years cable networks have become bolder in scheduling their strongest programs against broadcast competition.

Sci Fi Channel’s other current drama, the freshman series “Eureka,” also took a fall. The show debuted in July and was averaging 2.8 million viewers for nine weeks, then dropped an average 30 percent to 1.9 million viewers for the most recent four episodes.

The lesson: Fall is still the domain of broadcast.

“It’s a mistake to premiere shows against network premieres,” said Tim Brooks, TV historian and Lifetime’s executive VP of research. “The fact that all the broadcast networks premiere their shows against each other is the greatest gift broadcast has ever given to cable. Why would any cable network fly straight into that?”

Sci Fi executives declined to comment. A network spokesperson noted that due to “Battlestar” the channel is having its best October ever.

Ironically, going into the fall season, “Battlestar” had a higher awareness than “Heroes,” media consultant Rusty Mintz said.

Sci Fi Channel even helped build interest in the NBC show by airing “Heroes” episodes as part of NBC Universal’s cross-platform strategy.

“Hindsight is always 20/20, and clearly in their minds there was a sound logical strategy for diverging from prior rollouts,” Mr. Mintz said. “In this case, whether it’s hubris or boldness, however you want to define it, it’s understandable and essential to keep on pushing in order to compete in a nonlinear world.”

This year, not only “Eureka” but Lifetime’s “Angela’s Eyes,” which also debuted in July, saw a sharp average decline once the broadcast networks started rolling out their new season lineups. “Angela’s” averaged 2 million viewers in its first nine episodes, then dropped an average of 41 percent since the start of the broadcast season.

Still, the news hasn’t been all cable carnage and is not likely to ward off completely cable premieres in the fall.

VH1’s reality show “The Flavor of Love” is thriving. And FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” which premiered Sept. 5, is enjoying a comeback. The show is up 7 percent among total viewers and 6 percent among adults 18 to 49 compared to season three.

“Everybody here was worried when we decided to debut `Nip’ in the fall; it’s always a risk,” said FX spokesman John Solberg. “But the show has survived and grown.”