Bada bing stings networks

Premier cable shows are encroaching on b'cast territory

If you want to know just how much the network TV game has changed in the past five years, sneak into the executive offices of ABC.

Peer on to the desk of any senior suit and you’ll find a competitive scheduling grid that lays out, night-by-night, exactly what CBS, NBC, Fox, the WB and UPN have planned for the week ahead. Similar charts can be found at the other nets.

But look a little closer at ABC’s grid, specifically at Sunday nights. Amid the listings for “Alias” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” a careful observer will find three little letters that potentially represent a sea change for broadcasters.

“Yes, we’ve got HBO’s Sunday schedule on our grids,” a top Alphabet programmer admits. “We need to be aware when they’re starting shows, when they’re stunting, when their finales are airing. On Sunday night, they have a presence that is large enough to warrant paying attention.”

That’s an understatement.

Last week’s record-shattering performance of “The Sopranos” on HBO demonstrated as never before the ability of individual cable series to draw Big Six-style audiences.

While broadcasters still dominate on a nightly basis, a new breed of buzzworthy cable shows is beginning to put the hurt on the major nets.

Indeed, as network shares continue to drift lower, and cablers continue to pump more coin into creating and promoting original programming, the gap between broadcast and cable hits is starting to disappear.

Consider the stats:

  • Even though HBO reaches fewer than one-third of the nation’s TV homes, over 13 million viewers tuned in for the return of Tony Soprano and his clan. Among the advertiser-friendly adults 18-49 demo, the show was the No. 1 rated program of the week.

  • Last spring, MTV’s “The Osbournes” turned into a young adult juggernaut, often earning better numbers among 18-49 and 18-34 adults than most of the shows the Big Six were serving up on Tuesday nights.

  • Little-viewed cabler TLC stunned the suits on Broadcast Row this year when a celeb edition of “Trading Spaces” attracted more viewers adults 18-49 than anything ABC, CBS or NBC put on the air that Saturday night.

Broadcasters rightly point out that these “super” cable shows are still the exception, not the rule. For the most part, even the lowest-rated Big Four skein still attracts more viewers than most top cable programs.

What’s more, broadcast audience erosion from cable competish hasn’t stopped advertisers from continuing to shell out billions more each year to get their ads on the Big Six.

“It’s not a problem,” one webhead insists of the cable competish. “This is all such a media story. The fact is, HBO only really has two big series (‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Sex and the City’). And not a single advertiser dollar flows from anything they do, because they don’t take ads.”

Other industry observers agree that there aren’t enough big cable hits yet to force network execs into panic mode. But, they add, the stunning success of skeins such as “Sopranos” should make them a little nervous.

“The average home this fall is going to have 100 plus channels, and most of them are cable,” says Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA. “At this point, it’s not a huge threat, but the networks need to start having these shows on their radar.”

“Sopranos” exec producer Brad Grey, who’s made millions in network TV, argues that while the Big Six “are still dominant,” the recent success of cable skeins isn’t a blip.

“What ‘The Sopranos’ proves and ‘The Osbournes’ proves is that there’s a big audience in cable for the right kind of program,” he says. “And I think there will be more ratings successes in cable as the years go on, and that completely changes the dynamics of broadcast television.”

MTV Networks exec VP for research and planning Betsy Frank points out that among kids, teens and tweens, the wall between cable and broadcast doesn’t exist. Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, for example, regularly wallop broadcasters on Saturday morning.

“These are people who never knew a world without Nickelodeon or MTV or the Internet,” she says. “And they’re going to get older, and when they do, they’ll bring the habits and viewing expectations they learned as kids with them.”

In other words, the tykes tuning in “SpongeBob SquarePants” today will turn into the adults 18-49 who don’t mind skipping over the major networks tomorrow.

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