Cablers go for drama

'Into the West,' 'Closer' grab auds as other skeins go on hiatus

While ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” may be hoofing up monster auds, cable’s causing some record-breaking drama via top-performing scripted skeins.

Wired world’s hourlongs — and this summer is home to more of them than any other time in history — are attaining Nielsen highs, and show no sign of slowing.

And now that broadcast’s most popular hours — “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “CSI: NY” — are on summer hiatus, cable’s scripted stable is filling the void.

TNT’s epic oater “Into the West” grabbed 6.5 million viewers in its June 17 premiere, and continues to gobble up auds with its weekly Friday-Sunday multiplay. And Kyra Sedgwick starrer “The Closer” landed basic cable’s highest-ever debut for an original series. (Only USA’s “The 4400” collected more viewers last summer, but was billed a five-part event in its initial cycle.)

Also new on the block is “Wildfire,” which notched ABC Family’s most-watched series debut, with nearly 2 million viewers turning in. Up next is FX’s Steven Bochco war drama “Over There.”

FX chief of research Steve Leblang says such achievements are considerable given summer’s heightened competition, though it has yet to be proven that the sheer number of cable offerings have begun to cannibalize one another.

“I think we’re seeing that there’s room for everyone, with the broadcasters doing well with reality, and us with scripted,” Leblang says.

But the real story of summer is in the returning scripted skeins. While reality fare tends to burn white hot and flame out quickly — Leblang points to latest editions of “The Apprentice” and “Swan” as examples — cable’s hours are showing little wear.

USA’s sci-fi drama “4400,” back in a 13-episode showing, has maintained its stellar season one demos, while “The Dead Zone’s” fourth-season premiere has lost little steam between cycles. Women’s cabler Lifetime also came back with the sixth edition of “Strong Medicine” — cable’s longest running original drama — and the third of “Missing” to demo-strong results.

FX’s Denis Leary drama “Rescue Me” lost some overall viewership in its sophomore bow, but nearly none of its desirable 18-49 viewers. And “The Shield” finished its fourth season up from its third, with 3.2 million tuning in. “Look at consistency of these shows. Scripted series, historically, have had stronger legs over the long run,” Leblang says. For cable to be going head to head in the game, albeit focused on reaching smaller, more specific categories, “is an achievement any way you look at it.”

Leblang adds that research shows fewer season-too-season dropoffs than before — despite more programs and more channels.

“There’s a huge amount of sampling going on,” he says. “And it’s because viewers don’t distinguish between watching something on channel 7 or 47. Destination shows are destination shows.”

Only sore spot in the story, surprisingly, comes from HBO. Swan song of “Six Feet Under” is down versus last season, though the skein moved to Monday nights this year (pitting it against “The Closer” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” among other first-run series).

“Entourage” is down a notch from its first season average. Execs say the weekly cume remains on par with the first season. And Lisa Kudrow starrer “The Comeback” got off to a slow start and has all but stalled in its Sunday run.

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