News

Summer Sizzles For Cable Hits

6/20/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

The summer forecast for cable: It’s gonna be a scorcher.

Only a few weeks into the summer ratings race, cable programmers seem to be on track to claim dominance over the broadcast networks in drawing more eyeballs to their original series and movies during the period.

Through the first two weeks of the three-month summer season, cable networks — buoyed by the strong ratings performances of several returning scripted and reality shows — are so far drawing a much higher share of primetime viewers than they did last summer, when cable set a record audience mark.

And with such ratings-rich returning series as TNT’s The Closer and AMC’s Mad Men on deck to premiere later this summer — combined with the broadcast networks’ traditional lineup of repeats and low-budget reality shows during the period — this season will most likely be cable’s most-watched ever.

The ratings are holding even with good weather tempting viewers to stay outside longer. “The viewers’ appetite for fresh, quality programming is insatiable — it doesn’t matter whether it’s hot outside — and they certainly have choices now through cable,” said TV historian Tim Brooks.

And they’re choosing cable shows in big numbers. Through June 15, non-pay cable networks are averaging a 67 viewership share in primetime, which doubles the broadcast networks’ 32 share and eclipses its own record 62.9 summer viewership share set last year, according to Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research figures.

Strong ratings performances for several returning scripted and reality shows have set a blazing pace for cable thus far:

  • Lifetime’s scripted series Army Wives drew a network record 4.5 million total viewers in its June 8 sophomore season debut.

  • Showtime’s pot-influenced dramedy, Weeds, drew 1.75 million households during its June 16 premiere, making the Mary-Louise Parker vehicle the network’s most-watched season premiere since 2004.

  • The season three premiere of Oxygen’s celebreality series Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood was the most-watched season debut of an Oxygen original series ever, drawing 667,000 viewers and 356,000 viewers in the network’s target demographic of women 18 to 49.

  • History’s June 8 second season premiere of reality series Ice Road Truckers drew 4 million viewers, marking the network’s best-ever season launch of a series.

For years, cable has taken advantage of the broadcast networks’ summer scheduling hiatus by premiering some of its most popular shows between June and early September. As more networks have developed quality, original scripted and reality series during that period, cable has been able to siphon a significant amount of viewers from its broadcast-network competitors.

A Season of Dominance

Indeed, emboldened by the cable’s summer dominance, several networks, including TNT and FX, will take the next step and aggressively launch several new and established series in the fall, when the broadcasters are strongest with the start of their fall programming lineups. Typically, cable networks forgo new launches and yield to the broadcasters in the fall.

TNT will debut a new lawyer-based series, Raising the Bar, on Sept. 1, and FX will debut the fifth and final season of its long-running cop series, The Shield, this fall as well.

“There’s no question that the game is changing,” said TNT and TBS senior vice president of programming Ken Schwab. “Today, there may be more original broadcasting programming in the summer, but in reality it’s becoming an all-year-round game for cable.”

Since 2002, when the broadcasters’ 36 share was in striking distance of cable’s 53 audience share, cable has significantly increased its lead each year. In 2007, cable for the first time doubled the broadcasters’ 27 share en route to its record-setting 62 share.

“Summer has become a big launch period” for the cable industry, said History executive vice president and general manager Nancy Dubuc. “Just by the nature of the competitive landscape, cable is able to crow a little louder in the summer, and I think we’ve seen a tremendous amount of success with that over several years.”

Typically, the industry looks to jump out to a very early share lead by premiering high-profile original content during the first two to three weeks of June, in an effort to draw viewers looking for new, original series once the broadcasters end their television season in late May.

“Cable identified several years ago that the very beginning of the summer — right after the May broadcast sweeps — was the ideal time to launch shows because the broadcast networks pretty much put up the 'Gone Fishin’ sign, signaling to viewers to go someplace else for fresh programming,” said Brooks. “Just as the networks have conditioned viewers to expect that any new content is either going to go away or turn into [low-budget] fare, cable has conditioned them to look for new quality content at the very top of the summer.”

This summer is no different. Nearly a dozen cable series launched new seasons or episodes in the first two weeks of June, ranging from scripted juggernauts Army Wives and USA Network’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent; to sitcoms like TBS’s The Bill Engvall Show, My Boys and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne; to such reality such as Bravo’s Flipping Out, A&E Network’s Intervention, FX’s 30 Days and Oxygen’s Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood.

Schwab said the lack of competition from the broadcasters has made early June particularly fertile ground for TBS to return its slate of comedy shows. After a two-month hiatus, the network’s June 11 debut of a new House of Payne episode drew 3.6 million viewers, above the overall 3.1 million average viewers for the series tracking the exploits of an African-American family.

“New viewing habits are forming during the summer months as people’s lives change a bit,” Schwab said. “There aren’t a lot of new fresh scripted comedies in the marketplace, which provides less competition for us.”

But it takes more than a favorable time period to draw viewers — the shows themselves must be something that viewers want to watch. Lifetime senior vice president of scripted series Maria Grasso said the network was able to build anticipation for the return of its military-tinged series Army Wives by utilizing a time-tested TV stunt — a cliffhanger ending for the first season. Viewers were left wondering which characters died in a bombing at a local watering hole.

Grasso said anticipation among its core female viewers for new episodes of the show over the winter helped Army Wives’ June 8 season premiere episode draw 4.5 million viewers, breaking a network ratings record for an original-series episode. (The season two premiere revealed that it was the daughter of Kim Delaney’s character, Claudia Joy, that was killed in the bombing.)

“We absolutely think that scheduling is a key, especially after a season that was fraught with shows coming off and on the schedule due to the writer’s strike,” said Grasso. “But we also believe that it was the good storytelling and the dramatic twists — we had a very big cliffhanger at the end of last season — that had not only the loyal fans from last year come back after 10 months, but also viewers who weren’t watching last year tune in.”

More To Come

Army Wives will have more competition in the coming months, however, as cable networks continue to roll out new original content — and draw more viewers away from the Big Four.

TNT will return cable’s No. 1 original scripted series, The Closer, and its sophomore show Saving Grace on July 14. July will also see the return of USA Network scripted series Monk, Psych and Burn Notice.

AMC’s critically acclaimed Mad Men, about the advertising world of the 1960s, will debut July 27, hoping to improve on the more than 1.1 million viewers the series generated last summer.

“What you are seeing is genuinely popular shows now being perfectly placed to get banner audiences when they come back to television,” Brooks said.

Undoubtedly that translates into more viewers for cable — and a projected early win for the industry over the broadcast networks in the summer 2008 ratings race.

Series Network AirDate 2008 Premiere Viewership (000,000) Prior Season Viewer Avg. (000,000)
SOURCE: Disney ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research figures
The Bill Engvall Show TBS 6/12 2.8 2.8
My Boys TBS 6/12 1.7 1.5
Ice Road Truckers History 6/8 3.9 3.2
Army Wives Lifetime 6/1 4.5 3.0
Tori and Dean Oxygen 6/17 0.667 0.471

September