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Cable Follows Script for Summer Success

5/19/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

As recently as five years ago, most broadcast television executives considered summer a programming wasteland. The thought was that viewers would rather soak up the sun on the beach than sit at home and watch a first-run series. But what the broadcast networks saw as an abyss, cable saw as an opportunity.

Fast forward to today, and cable has found an audience eager to watch new and original programming like Monk rather than repeats of CSI:Miami. This summer cable networks hope to draw an even larger audience by rolling out an unprecedented number of scripted television shows.

“[Scripted] series are the last area that broadcast has success in,” said Turner Network Television and TBS executive vice president and general manager Steve Koonin. “Viewers have shifted to cable for sports, news and kids. Series have been the last gasp of broadcast and that will continue to weaken this summer as great stories get told on cable.”

Beginning with FX’s gritty cop drama The Shield in 2000 and continuing through TNT’s The Closer last year, cable’s new, scripted series have benefited from the huge audience shift from broadcast to cable networks once the traditional fall/winter television season concludes at the end of May.

How big is the shift? Last year, cable garnered a record 61 viewership share from May 30 to August 28, compared to an all-time low 32 share for the broadcast networks, according to Nielsen. Back in summer 2000, broadcast held a slight edge over cable with a 45.8 share of the audience compared to cable’s 44.7 share, according to a Turner Sales analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

MORE SUMMER VIEWING

And more people are actually watching television during the summer than ever before.

Last year, viewers averaged 30.6 hours of television a week, 10% more than five years ago, according to Turner. Further, in 2005 summer viewing only dropped 3% from the traditional winter viewing period, according to Turner.

“Not only are we saying that people watch more TV, but they’re watching a lot more TV in the summer, so I think this will be the best summer ever for cable,” said Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag. “There are so many cable networks that are fully distributed and have strength and good programming.”

Yet with the exception of a few reality series, most broadcast networks continue to shun the summer months by running repeats of popular scripted fare. As a result, the summer has become fertile ground for cable without competition from broadcast.

“This is like a stream that’s gone one way for a very long time,” said Wakshlag. “Broadcast networks have had success in the summer like [CBS’s] Survivor but no matter how you play it, broadcast will have more hours of non-original content than original content.

“That gives people an opportunity to look around, and when they look around they find stuff and never go back [to broadcast] quite as much as they did the year before,” he said.

Cable has made most of that opportunity over the last couple years by launching successful scripted shows such as FX’s iconic plastic surgery-themed Nip/Tuck; ABC Family’s drama Wildfire, and USA Network’s Monk and The Dead Zone.

Such shows have not only become staples for both their respective networks and the industry at large, but they’ve also set performance records along the way.

TNT’s June 13, 2005, premiere of The Closer for example, notched a basic-cable original series record 5.9 household rating en route to averaging a 2005 cable-high 4.5 series rating.

“The fact that a number of cable networks are launching new shows during the summer is one of the celebrations of cable because it shows that people don’t stop watching shows during the summer,” said Koonin.

STIFF COMPETITION

TNT hopes The Closer, which stars Kyra Sedgwick as an unconventional interrogator, can repeat its ratings success when it bows next month. But the series will face stiff competition from an unprecedented amount of scripted fare that will find its way onto cable network schedules this summer:

  • USA will bring back its popular, compulsive detective Adrian Monk for a fifth season in June, along with new seasons of supernatural dramas The Dead Zone and The 4400. It will also debut the quirky dramedy series Psych in July.

  • Sci Fi Channel will bring back Stargate SGI and Stargate Atlantis, as well as a new series, Eureka, about the lives of the eccentric inhabitants of a Northwestern town.

  • Dennis Leary-vehicle Rescue Me will return to FX for a third season. Also returning is sophomore comedy series Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which has added veteran actor Danny DeVito, and 30 Days.

  • Spike TV, in its first scripted venture, will bring the vampire-oriented box office hit Blade to life on the small screen in a new series slated to debut in June.

  • Along with The Closer, TNT will debut a second dramatic scripted series this summer dubbed Saved, focusing on the life of an EMT technician, as well as Nightmares and Dreamscapes, adapted from the short stories of frightmaster author Stephen King.

  • Lifetime will launch two comedy series, Lifespring International and Angela’s Eyes.

  • ABC Family will be very aggressive this summer with four new series, Falcon Beach, 3 Moons Over Milford, Fallen and Kyle XY.

A CROWDED SLATE

With so many scripted series vying for viewers, several executives are concerned that cable’s summer series success rate may not hold up this season.

“There’s so much original programming that the summer has become crowded as well,” said FX president of entertainment John Landgraf. “It’s a far cry from five years ago when FX launched The Shield when there was a really clear field.”

While fans of returning series such as FX’s Rescue Me and Sci Fi’s Stargate Atlantis will reconnect with their favorite shows, Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks said new series may have a more difficult chance of establishing decent ratings.

“They can’t all be successful,” said Brooks. “They have an extra chance to get sampled during the summer but they don’t necessarily have a chance to succeed … it has to be a good show that’s well crafted and viewers get into.”

BEST TIME TO LAUNCH

Still, network executives say the chances of succeeding are much greater during the summer than at any other time of the year. Spike TV executive vice president of original programming Pancho Mansfield said cable’s viewer dominance of the summer makes it the best time to launch its first original scripted series, despite the competition from other cable networks.

USA Network president Bonnie Hammer added that viewers have now become accustomed to looking at cable for new and exciting scripted series, which bodes well for the new crop of shows debuting this year, including USA’s own Psych.

“Cable has been the frontrunners in terms of using the summer for launching original series and we’re also ahead of people in original series period,” she said. “A lot of people have to catch up with us.”

September