Edgy fare helps niche nets beat b'cast rivals

CDs are sitting forlornly on record-store shelves, multiplexes are screening films to a diminishing base of moviegoers, and the broadcast networks have shed alarming numbers of viewers in recent years.

But one area of the business has built up an immunity to the malaise that’s seeping through so many of its showbiz counterparts.

That privileged party is basic cable. For proof, look no further than the November Nielsens, whose numbers were nothing short of eye-popping. Viewership of 25 ad-supported cable networks (out of 52 that are regularly monitored by Nielsen) shot up by double digits in primetime — the biggest monthly gain for cable in TV history.

And while it’s typical for 10 to 20 channels to show double-digit ratings drops in any given month, only five out of those 52 fell at that rate in November. Four of those five were newsies; the slippage of the fifth, Lifetime, is no surprise because the comparison year, 2002, was the best — by far — in that network’s history.

Cable’s surge is bad news for beleaguered broadcasters, whose ratings continue to slide.

Even more alarming to the seven broadcast nets, the Cable TV Advertising Bureau reported that basic cable as a category beat the seven broadcast networks in household ratings for the first time ever in the November primetime sweeps.

For the broadcast networks, “The handwriting’s on the wall,” says Betsy Frank, exec VP of research and planning for the MTV Networks. “Or, more accurately, the fingerprints are on the remote.”

One of the reasons for cable networks’ rise: They offer many shows that are imaginative and edgy.

And how do they manage that? The congloms that own most cable webs are eager to micro-manage their bigger assets — broadcast networks, movie studios — and tend to let “little” divisions like cable webs do their own thing.

This do-your-own-thing philosophy often allows cable to come up with attention-getting shows like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Nip/Tuck.”

At least three series greenlit for next year should continue to trade off cable’s momentum:

  • “Face Value,” a reality-show version of the scripted “Nip/Tuck” in which cabler E! Entertainment will follow a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon as he consults with patients and operates on them.

  • “Tripping the Rift,” a “South Park”-like animated half-hour for the Sci Fi Channel that lampoons socially responsible space operas.

  • “Todd TV,” on FX, in which 30-year-old Todd Santos turns his entire life over to a camera crew. The gimmick is that interactive polling will place Santos’ major life decisions in the hands of cable viewers.

While the cable industry is breaking out the noisemakers and party hats over its Nielsen gains, Brad Adgate, head of research for Horizon Media, says November is just the culmination of a trend that reached a tipping point during the summer, when cable offered more enticing shows than the broadcasters.

Adgate says that instead of stocking their summer primetime schedules with reruns, the broadcast networks commissioned more than a dozen firstrun reality shows to try to keep masses of viewers from defecting to cable.

“But none of the broadcast shows came anywhere near getting the audience of breakthrough hits of previous summers,” says Adgate, referring to past hits like ABC’s “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” in 1999, CBS’s “Survivor” in 2000, NBC’s “Fear Factor” in 2001 and Fox’s “American Idol” in 2002.

Adgate says that, over the summer, “a big chunk of the appointment viewing, and the buzz, came from cable shows such as ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ on Bravo, ‘Nip/Tuck’ on FX and ‘The Newlyweds’ on MTV.”

These three shows became instant hits, and “Queer Eye” has morphed into a cultural phenom, spurring NBC, which owns Bravo, to begin scheduling episodes of the series in its primetime lineup.

One common denominator of “Queer Eye,” “Nip/Tuck” and longrunning hits like Comedy Central’s “South Park” and MTV’s “Real World” is that they’re willing to pursue controversy, hoping to lure young viewers who find most of the primetime fare on broadcast networks to be bland and irrelevant to their lives.

Steve Le Blang, head of research for FX (whose web sked includes the cutting-edge “The Shield”), says pushing the boundaries of content is almost a must if a TV show wants to get young men to pay attention.

Many of these males are avid video-game players, says Le Blang.

“The best-selling video game is ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ” he says, “which teaches its players how to hot-wire a car, steal it, make your getaway, and blow the heads off any cops stupid enough to interfere.”

According to Le Blang, devotees of “Grand Theft Auto” are not going to get off on most of the shows residing in broadcast primetime, particularly since broadcasters tend to shy away from maxed-out violence and anti-authority attitudes.

Commenting on the 2003-04 season, Frank says, “The broadcast networks got so nervous about their upfront advertising dollars that they put together a conservative primetime schedule. They didn’t want to scare any advertisers away.”

As a result, no broadcast-primetime series that premiered in September has broken out of the pack.

Frank says only two have elbowed their way into the top 20: “Cold Case,” the detective series, and “Two and a Half Men,” the sitcom; both of these CBS shows are as conventional as it gets.

But even though broadcast ratings are trending down while cable numbers keep inching up, successful broadcast shows still harvest millions more viewers than their cable-series counterparts.

And a 30-second spot on a powerhouse broadcast series like “Friends” fetches, on average, 10 times as much as a spot on two runs (the original and five-days-later repeat) of cable’s highest-rated scripted hit “Nip/Tuck.”

Many of the biggest advertisers still regard a spot in broadcast-network primetime as the most dynamic medium for their messages because it goes out over the airwaves to 99% of the U.S., same day/same time. (Cable’s household reach is in the low 70s percentile.) And advertisers back up their conviction by spending, on average, more money each year on broadcast TV for smaller numbers of viewers.

And it’s precisely the broadcasters’ clout on Madison Avenue that has given cable a paradoxical advantage. Since most of the major cable networks are part of media congloms, cable can bask in a kind of below-the-radar freedom that’s denied to the high-stakes game of broadcast TV.

At an MTV Networks-hosted panel session in New York last week on TV trends, Jon Stewart, host and exec producer of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” put his finger on the difference between broadcast and cable.

Asked what would happen to “Daily Show” if a broadcast network plucked it from Comedy Central, Stewart said, “The expectation would be that we would be more managed, and we would have less creative opportunity.”

Comedy Central never gets second-guessed by its sister company CBS, just as the TV mavens at the Walt Disney Co. expend far more resources trying to fix a subpar ABC, which is losing money, than to restore a Nielsen-dysfunctional ABC Family, which is making money.

ABC Family can stay in the black despite less-than-stellar household ratings for at least two reasons. First, it overachieves in adults 18-49, the demographic category advertisers pay a premium for. Second, unlike broadcast TV, ABC Family chalks up revenues both from advertising and from cable-operator license fees.

However, the news is not all upbeat for cable, says Steve Sternberg, exec VP and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA.

Sternberg says one of the reasons why cable’s overall ratings continue to grow is that more new cable networks keep opening for business every year.

“There’s a fixed number of broadcast networks but an ever-expanding number of cable channels,” he says. “It’s not just the broadcast networks that are losing viewers but audiences of some of the top-rated cable networks are getting cannibalized by these new channels.”

The average household pulls in more than 100 networks on its TV set, a figure that will continue to explode as digital cable and satellite make it easier for operators to add program services.

All of these additional networks probably ensure that cable’s ratings will keep growing. But audiences could become so fragmented among so many hundreds of channels that television’s role in helping to unite the country within a common culture could fall away.

Except for rare events like the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards telecast, the concept of water-cooler shows that masses of viewers watch at a specific time on a specific night might become as obsolete as a black-and-white TV set.

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