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Leno Move Good News for Cable Nets

12/12/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

NBC’s decision to give Jay Leno a 10 p.m. show five nights a week could be a blessing for cable, making it a bigger player in the scripted-drama business, Madison Avenue and cable executives said last week.

During the past few years, both basic-cable and premium-cable networks have made aggressive forays into original hour-long series, with services such as TNT, USA Network, FX and AMC reaping ratings and critical success with fare such as The Closer, Saving Grace, Monk, Psych, The Shield, Damages, Nip/Tuck and Mad Men.

A number of cable’s scripted shows air at 10 p.m. And these cable series will be competing against one less broadcast rival in the drama genre — in that particular time slot — once Leno starts doing his topical show next fall on NBC in primetime.

Cable’s 10 P.M. Slate
Cable networks run a plethora of original dramas weekdays at 10 p.m., including these hits:
Show Network Day Average Viewers (millions)
SOURCE: ABC-Disney Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
Burn Notice USA Thursday 5.85
Saving Grace TNT Monday 5.167
Psych USA Friday 5.055
Nip/Tuck FX Tuesday 3.409
Raising the Bar TNT Monday 3.21
Sons of Anarchy FX Wednesday 2.556
Starter Wife USA Friday 2.179
Stargate Atlantis Sci Fi Friday 2.107
The Cleaner A&E Tuesday 2.003

BOOST TO ORIGINALS

“Certainly, if you take out the ERs and the Law & Orders and these other dramas that NBC has been running, cable could stand to benefit, particularly the originals, shows like Mad Men or Saving Grace or Psych, which are 10 o’clock-type shows, ” said Horizon Media senior vice president and director of research Brad Adgate. “[Cable networks] will try to look at this as an opportunity and capitalize on it.”

Cable stands to be able to draw a larger audience at 10 p.m. now that NBC is “sort of abandoning the hot spot for scripted drama,” according to Ed Carroll, president of national entertainment services for Rainbow Media.

“I do think it’s an opportunity for cable to pick up more viewers because people that are looking for scripted programming in the 10 o’clock hour, people who are not looking for a talk show, will now be up for grabs,” Carroll said.

Cable may also reap another benefit from the Leno move. Hollywood talent, writers and producers, may wind up bringing more projects to cable because there will be less of a demand for scripted shows from NBC.

That could herald a greater migration of the scripted-drama format — one of the last bastions of broadcast strength — to cable, the way that program genres such as kids’ shows, original movies, sports and news have increasingly moved off the Big Four to become cable mainstays, according to media buyers and other executives.

“If you look at it a year from now they’ll probably still be as many scripted dramas as there were three years ago,” said Michael Wright, who last week was promoted to the job of executive vice president, head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. “The only thing that would be changed radically is a much higher majority of those would be on cable.”

NBC, once known as the home of hot 10 p.m. scripted-drama hits such as ER (now in its final season), has a thin development slate and is looking for less-pricey programming to fill its schedule. Nonetheless, the Peacock Network’s announcement last week that it was giving Leno a 10 p.m. show next year after his late-night The Tonight Show gig is taken over by Conan O’Brien had the TV industry buzzing.

“It’s bold, but it’s also a rescue move,” said Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president and director of programming for Carat. “In the absence of ER, they still needed the emergency surgery in the time slot.”

TNT has successfully made a name for itself as the network that “knows drama,” building its brand on scripted shows such as The Closer, ad-supported cable’s biggest hit series ever, augmented by Saving Grace, veteran producer Steven Bochco’s Raising the Bar, and most recently, Leverage.

Saving Grace, Raising the Bar and Leverage air at 10 p.m., and Wright is happy those shows won’t have to compete against a drama on NBC next fall.

“I think Jay Leno’s fantastic,” Wright said. “I watch his show. He does a good job. But I’d rather program a 10 o’clock show, probably, against a talk show than another scripted drama, because if you’re in the mood for a talk show, great, but if you’re in the mood for a scripted drama, that’s one less competitor for our programming.”

Added Wright: “For all I know, Jay could go on and just kill at 10 o’clock and I’ll have a tougher competitor. But in theory, it’s one less scripted drama to compete against in that hour.”

In terms of pure viewership, it’s doubtful that Leno will be able to rack up the kind of ratings that hit scripted dramas have conjured up, according to Jack Wakshlag, Turner’s chief research officer.

“How will Leno do against what the dramas used to deliver [on NBC] at 10 o’clock?” Wakshlag asked. “I don’t think he’s going to sit there and say he can deliver the big kind of numbers that Law & Order would deliver. So the numbers aren’t going to go there, aren’t going to go up.”

Adgate noted that cable tends to push the envelope with its scripted shows, so that type of programming lends itself to the 10 p.m. time slot. And in fact, FX and USA do schedule many of their scripted dramas at 10 p.m. In particular, FX officials have said in the past that the later time slot is appropriate for its edgy shows, series such as The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Sons of Anarchy. Carroll noted that AMC airs both Mad Men and Breaking Bad at 10 p.m.

FX couldn’t be reached for comment last week, and USA declined to comment. Both NBC and USA are owned by NBC Universal.

TALENT BONANZA

With NBC demanding fewer scripted shows for its program lineup, producers and writers will need to find additional outlets for their projects, and they will likely increasingly turn to cable, Wright and media buyers said.

“There’s less programming hours to fill, and probably talent that has supply,” Brill said. “Cable networks are increasingly developing scripted series. I could see some of the shows that had initially maybe been designated for network sale maybe going to cable, like a Turner.”

Wright said cable networks such as TNT offer talent like Bochco a less rigid and more creative atmosphere to work in than the broadcast networks.

“Broadcast networks are changing the way they’re going to operate, they’re faced with fiscal realities produced by a broken business model, and that creates opportunity for us,” Wakshlag said.

September