USA will air completed fifth season this summer

“The Dead Zone” grabbed the fifth largest audience of any original series on cable last year, but USA Network isn’t going to prolong its life.

Cabler will air the already completed fifth season this summer, and word in TV circles is that the batch likely will serve as the psychic thriller’s swan song.

Dilemma for USA execs — whether to renew — is a growing problem for cablers that compete in the scripted-hour biz. With a growing number of original dramas and cable’s limited programming budgets, shows with waning buzz are being put out to pasture in spite of strong followings.

For a network like USA, the decision is more difficult. Its own recent development — short-lived dramas “Peacemakers,” “Touching Evil” and “Kojak” — didn’t draw significant demos. Channel is banking on summer frosh series “Psych,” about a guy who pretends to be a psychic detective to save himself from jail time, to buck the trend.

A USA spokesman insists the jury is still out on a renewal for “Dead Zone.” Execs from USA and Lionsgate, which produces the show, declined comment.

“We have an option for a sixth season renewal,” the rep says. “We’ll make a decision about a potential pickup at the appropriate time.”

But the show seems to already be on life support. Regular cast members David Ogden Stiers and John L. Adams have already been cast in fall pilots. Sources also say lead Anthony Michael Hall, who stars as the psychic cop, is free to pursue other projects.

Some insiders say USA’s real problem is parent NBC, where ratings woes are creating trouble for the budgets of its profitable cablers. A USA rep denies that theory.

Still, whereas “Dead Zone” is produced by Lionsgate in association with Paramount, USA’s “Monk” and upcoming “Psych” are produced by sister shingle NBC U TV Studio, keeping the coin flowing inhouse.

“Dead Zone’s” ratings are an achievement anywhere on cable. Last year, it ranked in cable’s top 10 among adults 18-49, impressively building from seasons two and three. What’s more, the hour is on par with TNT’s mammoth rookie “The Closer” in advertisers’ prized demo: “Closer” averaged 1.93 million viewers in the 18-49 bracket, while the latest cycle of “Dead Zone” drew 1.9 million. USA’s “Monk” and “The 4400,” meanwhile, only slightly better that performance with averages of 2.03 million and 2.07 million, respectively.

But in cable economics, it’s hard to support more than three or four scripted hours, Turner exec VP/chief operating officer Steve Koonin says. Cablers that invest in scripted originals also typically spend on sports, movies and off-net fare that rake in real coin.

“But you don’t cancel things that are working,” he says.

Horizon Media’s director of research Brad Adgate believes “Dead Zone” still has some legs from a “pure numbers standpoint,” notingonly a handful of non-sports programs on cable get those kind of ratings.

“However, if USA pulls ‘Dead Zone’ and replaces it with a new show, I think advertisers will give them the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “Right now they’re the highest-rated ad-supported cable network. They must be very confident in what they’ve got coming up and in development.”

Another top cable programmer says it would be a different story if “Dead Zone” were a broadcast show. “On a major network, you need filler. You can do pretty well with shows that just hold your lead-in,” the programmer says. “On cable, you need shows that brand your network.”

“Dead Zone” is coming into its fourth year and has never sparked the interest of the media in the way “The 4400″ or any of FX’s efforts have.

The decision to pull the plug on middling cable shows is especially tricky for studios. While cablers can afford to cycle out shows that get a little long in the tooth, studios investing in the occasional cable project can’t count on upside from expensive dramas that can’t reach enough episodes to sell elsewhere or abroad. Only Lifetime’s “Strong Medicine,” which was shuttered after six top-rated seasons, and “The Shield” have run long enough to sell domestically.

When the fifth season of “Dead Zone” winds down, there will be 67 hours available for syndication — enough to sell, but not quite the 80 that would sweeten the deal.

“None of these shows are profitable on cable,” the cable programmer continues. “There’s a business in producing a middling broadcast show, but that model doesn’t exist on cable. With so much competitive original programming, you need to refresh the lineup. You need to keep people talking about the network.”

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