Cable executives are feeling a bit braver than usual this fall.
History shows that cable programmers suffer the blues in fall when the Big Six pull out the big guns and things get noisy in TV land.
But as cablers continue to wrest away audience shares from their broadcast brethren, several cable chiefs are taking on the fall with original shows and movies they hope will stand out in a crowd.
Niche channels were buoyed by recent evidence that cable originals could compete with broadcast offerings. In a summer that had the majors rolling out new series rather than the repeats, returning cable wares harvested millions, proving heavyweights in their own right. Such shows included Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper” and Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” and frosh faces like USA’s “The 4400,” FX’s “Rescue Me,” TBS’ “Outback Jack,” A&E’s “Growing Up Gotti,” and Sci Fi Channel’s “Stargate Atlantis”
Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt, who will step up to bat in November with “Huff,” his first original hour for the channel, is heartened by last fall’s lackluster results.
“With all due respect, the networks haven’t done the best job of launching things that have broken through in the fall,” he says. “So my feeling is to not be distracted by what is perceived as the networks’ time to dominate airwaves. We’ll put on our shows when it makes the most sense for our audience and cable operators.”
And though cablers can also have a tougher time finding follow-up success in a crowded arena — see summer preems E!’s “Scream Play,” Bravo’s “Things I Hate About You,” Comedy Central’s “The Graham Norton Effect” and Showtime’s “American Candidate” — one homerun in the fall can set everything back on track.
This time, cablers will have the benefit of competing with a scattered broadcast sked, according to Bravo/Trio topper Lauren Zalaznick.
“NBC is launching out of the Olympics, Fox is holding later and later because of the World Series, premiere dates are moving all the time,” she says. “There really is no competitive calendar I can use to base my scheduling on.”
Zalaznick, who is launching the male model search “Manhunt” this season, adds that unlike the networks, cable has the benefit of airing a program several times a week to get a sampling.
“If I have six episodes of something, I don’t need them to premiere once a week. I can strip them, or stack them on the weekends, or both,” she says. “As a cable programmer I have tremendous opportunities to get people to watch.”
USA, which cruised through summer on the sails of “Monk,” “The Dead Zone” and “4400,” is offering an updated version of “Frankenstein,” a two-hour event from executive producer Martin Scorsese, as its fall centerpiece.
Sci Fi/USA president Bonnie Hammer says counter-programming is the safest route to travel.
“I wouldn’t be comfy going toe to toe launching a new scripted show against broadcast. But I am looking at reality shows that offer an alternative to what the networks will have,” she said. “And I will go toe to toe when it comes to our big-budget movies and minis.”
In addition to Scorsese, “Frankenstein” features film director Marcus Nispel (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and thesps Parker Posey and Adam Goldberg.
Sci Fi, meanwhile, will unveil Wednesday reality nights this fall, powered by another season of “Scare Tactics” with new host Stephen Baldwin.
Court TV chairman-CEO Henry Schlieff says having a specific and distinct brand — Court TV: The Investigation Channel — does most of the marketing for him.
“There is not a viewer in the world that can tell you when a show is premiering and when. There’s just too much noise,” he says. “But viewers will tune into a brand, a place where they know what they’ll get no matter what time they turn it on.”
But with most cablers revving up to wage war on broadcast, AMC’s senior programming VP Rob Sorcher said the major networks are the least of his worries.
“As much as I’m looking at broadcast launches, I’m also looking at all the cable networks. They target the same windows that dodge September launches and sweeps that I do,” he says. Sorcher will be bowing “Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood,” a doc from Oscar-winning filmmaker Jesse Moss, on Sept. 14, taking advantage of the proximity of the presidential election.
Comedy Central scheduling exec Kathryn Mitchell, who has slated a Wanda Sykes skein and an animated reality TV satire for October, says the laffer net is rarely affected by fall launches, calling it “the season for launching new drama.”
“That’s not our audience. We’re not worried about a new ‘E.R.’ or ‘Law & Order,’ ” she explains. “Sometimes, it’s an advantage because those shows tend to skew female and men are left looking for something to watch.”
So far FX has hit with two of the three scripted series it’s bowed since the launch of acclaimed cop drama “The Shield.”
“We won’t always be right, nobody can always be right,” entertainment prexy John Landgraf says. “I think it’s difficult to make really good television shows. Anyone in the business of doing that is going to fail a certain amount of the time.
“Our strategy is to wait for really good shows that we believe in and then market the hell out of them,” he says. “That’s why we send three episodes, not just the pilot, to the press. These are shows we are actually proud of.”