Cable Bows Heat Up Summer Schedules

Jun 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Summer is off to a hot start for cable.
USA’s “Starter Wife” kicked off the season by generating the highest ratings for a cable original series in nearly a year. Lifetime notched the most viewers it has drawn for a new show ever with “Army Wives.” TBS’s “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” checked in as the most-watched sitcom in ad-supported cable history.
With broadcasters in reruns after the May sweeps, cable networks have long used the competitive void to launch their own original programs. This season’s crop is notable because more networks are launching new, original scripted series. In addition to USA, Lifetime and TBS, players this season include TNT, FX, ESPN, AMC, Sci Fi, Spike, Comedy Central and ABC Family. An even longer list of networks have original non-scripted and reality shows launching this summer.
The more robust roster represents cable networks’ success in luring viewers who otherwise would have drifted away from television while the broadcasters air their sec ond-string material during the summer. Grabbing those summer viewers gives the cable networks bigger audiences to deliver to advertisers.
Cable executives are also bragging that the shows are better than ever, a happy return for some on their investments in more expensive programming.
“I think the quality of the programming is absolutely the highest and best it’s ever been,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks.
TV ratings used to drop when summer was rerun season. According to figures from Turner Broadcast ing, viewership was 15 percent lower than average during the summer in 1975. Since cable began introducing originals, that gap has closed to just 3 percent.
Original series also bolster cable’s share of adults age 18 to 49. Last summer, ad-supported cable garnered 51 percent of those viewers, compared with 27.5 percent for the broadcast networks.
“It’s a boom time for cable,” said Tim Brooks, the TV historian who is head of research at Lifetime. “It’s kind of a feast for viewers during June because they know that every few days there will be another thing premiering, probably on a different network with a different tone to it, and they can pick and choose what they want without have to miss something else.”
Mr. Koonin said that cable’s original series succeed partly because they have shorter seasons. The upcoming “Bill Engvall Show” on TBS is just eight episodes.
Turner marketing studies have found that’s attractive to viewers who say they don’t want to get engaged for six months when they can get married in two, he said.
“We think people’s lives are busy,” Mr. Koonin said. “We’re modeling our plan on viewers, not trying to reach some kind of vertical integration syndication goal, and that brings the quality out.”
Cable networks are able to make money on a shorter season by rerunning episodes frequently. TNT’s “The Closer” has 15 original episodes a season, but it’s on about 35 weeks a year.
“You have to have extremely strong shows to do that,” Mr. Koonin said.
Lifetime is launching three shows on Sundays, when broadcast competition would be fierce in seasons other than summer. But Susanne Daniels, president of entertainment for Lifetime Networks, said that while the time of year has an influence on what people want to watch, “The strongest factor, bar none, is how interesting the show is, period, whether it’s on in January or June.”
Lifetime is also launching “Side Order of Life” and “State of Mind” on July 15 to create a three-hour block.
“I developed the three best shows I could find,” she said. “I don’t know how audience flow is going to work because they’re all very distinct shows. That’s probably my biggest concern.”
AMC will be airing its new show “Mad Men” on Thursdays to take advantage of a night when movie studios and other marketers pay the highest advertising rates, said AMC General Manager Charlie Collier. “Everyone knows that’s where you put your highest-quality fare,” said Mr. Collier, who noted that the series was being shot on film, so it would fit in with the channel’s classic movies. “We think on Thursday at 10 o’clock people are used to high-quality drama, and we think we can deliver that with “‘Mad Men.’”
Some networks are getting more ambitious about launching shows during the broadcast season.
“The strategy has to be to come closer to having original product in all four quarters,” said USA and Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer, who called the “Starter Wife” launch a homerun. The show will be joined on Thursday night by “Burn Notice” next month, giving the network originals on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
USA runs original episodes of “Monk” and “Psych” in January and might launch original episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” during the broadcast season.
“We have to be smart about it,” Ms. Hammer said. “We don’t want to go toe to toe with the broadcast networks during their sweeps, yet we do believe we can compete very solidly.”
FX is already airing originals almost 52 weeks a year.
“We have eight series that are spread throughout the entire year, so summer is important, but it’s not as important as it once was to us or as it is to our competitors,” said John Landgraf, president of FX.
He’s still rolling out some big guns, including “Damages,” which stars Glenn Close.
“We have the best new show of the summer,” Mr. Landgraf said. “We’ve never made a show better than this.”
FX is also bringing back “Dirt” and “The Riches,” two shows that survived broadcast competition this year.
“I don’t want to say to the audience, we’re not interested in you six months of the year, and then tell them to come back because it’s summertime,” he said. “We want the advertisers to have the opportunity to advertise on our original programming every week of the year.”


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