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Cablers put summer squash on networks

As the Big Three broadcast networks and Fox head for the beach this summer, the cable webs will be punching the clock and working overtime. Upbeat advertising prospects and lackluster competition on the broadcast nets are spurring the cablers to launch a record number of firstrun programs.

Cable networks regularly launch guerrilla raids against the broadcast webs during the summer, scheduling original series and specials in primetime to lure viewers who are fed up with the wall-to-wall reruns that monopolize the summer lineups of the Big Three and Fox.

But this summer cable webs are behaving more aggressively than ever before, at least in part because the advertising marketplace is so robust. “We’re headed for one of the best third quarters in the history of the business,” says Howard Nass, senior VP of T.N. Media, the ad agency formerly known as Foote, Cone & Belding.

All the indications are that cable networks will be able to sell fresh programs to advertisers for premium prices this summer. Estimates from various sources put gross ad revenue for the cable networks this summer at about $750 million – a double-digit increase from last summer’s $680 million.

Another reason for the blitz of summer cable originals is that “the broadcast networks have hung up a gone-fishing sign,” says Herb Scannell, executive VP of Nickelodeon.

In recent summers, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have all experimented with limited-run original series, hoping one of the shows would catch fire with viewers and blast its way onto the network’s regular schedule. But the last time that happened was in the summer of 1990, when “Northern Exposure” made such a huge impact it became a Nielsen winner in CBS’s Monday-night lineup. All of the summer series tryouts since then have gone nowhere.

Also, the broadcast networks are tapped out because they splurged on firstrun movies, specials and series episodes to stay competitive during the May sweeps. Moreover the nets have no summer Olympics to entice viewers to stay tuned.

“While the networks are lying down this summer, we’re putting on an original movie each month and premiering three new daytime strips,” says Doug McCormick, president and CEO of Lifetime. The movies are “Shame II: The Secret,” with Amanda Donohoe; “Dancing in the Dark,” with Victoria Principal; and “The Silence of Adultery,” with Kate Jackson. The series are “Martha Stewart Living,” “Our Home” and “Biggers and Summers.”

TNT’s approach

Brad Siegel, president of TNT, says, “We’re running with some original movies this summer because we can make a lot of noise with them. We’ll get more press attention and have a shot at landing on the covers of the TV supplements.” The TNT firstrun movies are “Tecumseh: The Last Warrior,” with Francis Ford Coppola as exec producer, in June; “The Desperate Trail,” an adult Western with Sam Elliott and Linda Fiorentino, in July; and the political thriller “Broken Trust,” starring Tom Selleck, an August premiere.

“We schedule original programming 12 months a year,” says Brooke Bailey Johnson, senior VP of programming and production for A& E. The network’s firstrun offerings this summer include “The Cormorant,” a supernatural thriller with Ralph Fiennes; “Naked News,” a four-part “Investigative Reports” documentary on the American news media, and a satirical two-hour personal report on “The Hollywood Family,” written and hosted by Carrie Fisher.

In past summers, all of those originals would have fetched relatively low advertising dollars because most advertisers operate on the theory that hordes of people turn off their TV sets and go outdoors during the warm-weather months. But Nass says the American economy is on a roll and “advertisers are spending like crazy.”

In addition to the usual big summer spenders like soda and beer companies and movie distributors, Nass says the automobile manufacturers are doling out record sums for 30-second spots on cable-network schedules.

“And the telecommunications companies – MCI, AT& T and Sprint – are in the middle of trench warfare,” each trying to one-up the other in the size of their ad budgets, he says.

The pay-cable networks, particularly HBO and Showtime, are not affected by advertiser behavior because they’re commercial-free. But pay-TV channels are also firstrun conscious in the summer because they must cater completely to their subscribers, who presumably do not stop sending in their checks when the weather warms up.

“This summer we’re tripling the number of original programs we usually put on,” says Jerry Offsay, president of programming for Showtime. Because of all the reruns on the broadcast networks, “summer is the best time for us to launch originals because that’s when we can get people to watch them,” he says.

Offsay’s theory is that if the network’s subscribers like a Showtime series they begin watching in the summer, they’ll stick with it in the fall, or come back to it in the winter after they sample the new series on the broadcast networks in September and October.

HBO’s arsenal

That same theory is behind the decision of HBO to kick off the new season of its bellwether sitcoms “Dream On” and “The Larry Sanders Show” in mid-July. “A steady diet of new HBO movies” is also on the summer agenda, says Dave Baldwin, VP of program operations for HBO.

And the most visible weapons in the summer arsenal of HBO and Showtime are the big theatrical movies from the previous summer. HBO has “True Lies,” “Clear & Present Danger,” “Maverick” and “The Client,” among other titles. Showtime has a theatrical lineup that includes “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “It Could Happen to You,” “City Slickers 2” and “I Love Trouble.”

Lifetime’s McCormick sets the optimistic tone when he predicts that cable will enjoy its best summer ever. Quoting the lyrics of the hit single by Martha & the Vandellas, he all but bursts into song: “Summer is here, and the time is right for dancing in the streets.”

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