Major networks try to keep audiences with original shows year-round

Cable channels have steadily hijacked viewers from the broadcast networks during the last two decades. They’ve done so by bringing out their most powerful programming artillery when broadcasters were mired in reruns during the summer and during off-months like December and April.

But bummed out by the steady erosion of viewers to their cable rivals, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox have all begun slotting original shows throughout the entire year.

Exhibit A for the tougher new climate cable networks may be facing is USA’s “The Dead Zone.”

When “Zone” premiered in its Sunday at 10 timeslot last June, it chalked up record Nielsen ratings for an original cable series, at least in part because its competition was mostly reruns.

When the second season of “Zone” kicked off in January, usually a month bristling with lots of broadcast reruns, it wound up facing such heavily promoted powerhouse originals as “Kingpin” on NBC and Dick Wolf’s remake of “Dragnet” on ABC.

Although still pulling enough viewers to pick up a renewal from USA, “Zone” has lost a big chunk of its viewership to rival programming in the last two months.

But “Zone” is a scripted show going up against other scripted shows. New scripted shows are not on the broadcasters’ drawing boards this summer, and cablers hope to take advantage and counterprogram.

Michelle Gainless, executive VP and general manager of USA Network, says the broadcast networks are flooding the airwaves with reality programming, much of it aimed at the 12- to 34-year-old audience.

By contrast, she says, most of USA’s original programming is scripted drama, targeted to viewers from 25 to 54 years old, which serves as counterprogramming to youth-oriented reality.

Another cable exec who’s not overly worried about the festival of broadcast reality shows is Steve Koonin, executive VP and general manager of TNT.

“The broadcasters will be running so many reality shows this summer that they’ll cancel each other out,” Koonin says. “And viewers will burn out from the glut of these shows.”

Echoing that analysis, Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime, says, “The networks are marching toward reality like lemmings. The summer of 2003 could turn out to be the summer of slaughter.”

One network that won’t shy away from going head-to-head with broadcast reality is A&E.

Two forthcoming A&E originals, a four-hour “Napoleon” miniseries and an expensive two-hour “Biography” of Elizabeth Taylor, are geared to “an upscale, educated, discerning viewer,” says Robert DeBitetto, senior VP of programming for A&E.

“Most of the broadcast reality shows are produced for the lowest common denominator.”

That’s the point made by Barbara Fisher, exec VP of entertainment for Lifetime, whose reality shows — like “Final Justice,” hosted by the real Erin Brockovich, and “What Should You Do?” — are issue-oriented.

But even though their audiences may be older than the 18-to-34s who are gobbling up “Joe Millionaire,” “The Bachelorette” and “Fear Factor,” cable network execs are anything but complacent about the diminution in the number of broadcast reruns.

“We’re still going to have to be crafty about what we go up against,” says Koonin. “TNT will still yield the right of way to a reality show that’s working. It’s safe to say we won’t be putting a big original opposite the finale of ‘The Bachelorette.'”

“A savvy cable network can still be successful in the new environment,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV. “Broadcast networks may be planning fewer repeats, but there’ll still be plenty of them on the schedules to give cable the opportunity to make an impact.”

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