With new set of expectations, pick-up decisions are tougher

More than 8 million people tuned in June 12 to watch Kyra Sedgwick fight crime in the TNT original drama “The Closer.”

Three weeks later, 6 million checked out USA’s new one-hour comedy “Psych,” about a guy pretending to be a psychic detective.

Those ratings rival that of recent original efforts from the Big Four including ABC’s “How to Get the Guy” and “The One,” as well as the return of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.”

Sure, it’s summer, household television viewing levels are lower across the board . But just a few years ago, cable was still stuck at the drawing board when it came to producing high-end original drama.

In the past month, niche networks have scored the biggest ratings in its history — further eroding the line between cable and broadcast webs.

Cable’s scripted dramas are shaping up to be serious contenders for the attention of audiences. In addition to the record-setting performances of “The Closer” and “Psych,” cablers reached new ratings heights on the heels of rookie dramas like TNT’s EMT hour “Saved,” Sci Fi Channel’s small-town ensemble series “Eureka” and the return of USA’s “The Monk” and “The 4400.”

Even frosh offerings from Spike and ABC Family landed network-best numbers. FX’s brand of edgy-urban originals, meanwhile, continues to dominate the young demos that advertisers crave.

And strong sampling for recent premieres serves as overwhelming proof that viewers are not opposed to seeking out channels higher up on the dial in the name of destination shows.

The collective muscle is a game-changer — and something of a double-edged sword.

All of a sudden, the 2.5 million viewers who showed up for the launches of “Angela’s Eyes” on Lifetime and “Blade: The Series” on Spike didn’t seem like much to crow about. Tallies in the high 2-million to 3-million rangehad long been considered success stories for an original drama on cable. Now, they’re middle of the road.

Success for some makes the expectations that much higher for cable networks less established in the one-hour programming game like A&E, AMC and Spike.

“I think we’re all rooting for our dramas to do well, because it makes cable that much more appealing as a category to both talent and the studios,” says A&E head of scripted drama Tana Nugent Jamieson, who’stasked with re-launching drama on the cabler to fit with the anticipated off-net premiere of “The Sopranos.”

But with excitement comes pressure: “Not too long ago 2.5 million viewers would have been a great premiere for a cable drama. In this climate, it’s not necessarily a big deal,” Nugent Jamieson says. “I’m not sure where we’ll be when we air our first one-hour series, but the pressure is on.”

On the other side, executives at TNT are taking extra care when deciding to renew shows despite above-average viewership.

“Saved,” a high-end medical drama starring Tom Everett Scott, for example, premiered to big 5 million viewers and a 1.6 national rating/4 share among the key 18- to 49-year-old viewers, but the latest episode posted a much lower 2.7 million and 0.9/2 in the demo.

That number would still spell renewal for most cable dramas. With the new set of expectations, executives say a pick-up decision is a little tougher.

“Is it a slam dunk to be renewed? No. But not much is anymore,” says TNT/TBS chief operating officer Steve Koonin. “But the next four episodes are the best ones creatively, so we’ll see what happens.”

Koonin points out the show still does 20%-30% better than TNT’s primetime average.

The show also skews young, which works in its favor.

Many of the cable dramas score big premiere numbers heavy in older viewers. Ad sales execs point out that advertisers don’t pay attention to the total viewers, but the demographics.

“A big number of overall viewers is impressive because it proves that viewers will find you regardless of channel position and brand,” says Fox Cable Entertainment exec VP of ad sales Bruce Lefkowitz.”But advertisers buy in demos and ultimately that’s what you have to deliver. You have to be attracting the right kind of viewers.”

Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi Channel and USA Network, acknowledges that the total viewer and household numbers “are really fun buzz numbers, but everyone sells demos.”

“I’d rather have the stability of 2 million in our key 25-54 and 18-49 demos day in and day out,” she says. Though not as young as FX dramas like “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me,” USA’s “Psych” and “The 4400″ are among cable’s younger-skewing one-hours. “The Closer,” meanwhile, skews heavily with viewers older than 50, but still manages to grab a significant number of key 18- to 49-year-olds.

But, reasons Koonin, “You’re never going to have a big ratings hit without older people.” He points to broadcast behemoths like “CSI.”

For cable series, big numbers provide a better chance at backend coin. It’s a virtually non-existent revenue stream that has in the past prevented the major studios from investing in cable. Profits earned by a broadcast hit still outweigh those generated by a cable series by five or six times.

But the numbers continue to encourage. AMC’s four-hour Western “Broken Trail” rode off with nearly 10 million viewers — and one studio chief says that makes the cabler more attractive as a client.

“Does that number make me more confident that they’ll be a significant player when they launch their one-hour dramas? Absolutely,” the exec says.

With cable demonstrating its ability to create hit series, major studios have begun forming specialty divisions — such as Warner Horizon and fox21 — to capitalize on the opportunity. Warner Bros. has already seen the profit potential in cable fare, producing “Nip/Tuck” for FX.

While cable programmers are uniformly thrilled with the attention, Hammer says there is still a ways to go.

“Our shows do go toe-to-toe with the broadcasters in a lot of ways. But it is the summer, and even success levels at the broadcasters are lower during this time than they are in sweeps,” she says. “The thing that we’re all watching for is the DVR and how that is going to affect the business. That’s going to impact both cable and broadcasters across the board.”

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