Good series fight to get noticed

'Grace,' 'Order,' 'Notice' worth a second look

Over the years, the major networks have spread their program launches throughout the year — but the biggest bets are still placed in the fall and winter.

Cable networks, by contrast, long ago adopted a hit-’em-where-they-ain’t approach, using summer to launch their shows. There is, in fact, a plethora of programs scheduled to debut over the next few weeks.

Only problem: The series are arriving in such abundance that distinguishing the gems from the rhinestones — with Daylight Savings Time and summer vacations magnifying the challenge of getting shows sampled — won’t be easy.

And that’s a shame for their creators, since several of these contenders — including TNT’s “Saving Grace,” Lifetime’s “Side Order of Life,” USA’s recently introduced “Burn Notice” and FX’s “Damages” — are worthy of a second look.

Yet they face the challenge of premiering alongside nondescript summer originals like TNT’s “Heartland,” Lifetime’s “Army Wives” and TBS’s “The Bill Engvall Show” — as well as against a slew of unscripted entries, from Paula Abdul on Bravo to “Murder” on Spike, which puts contestants through a crime-solving competition.

ABC Family and Nickelodeon’s the N are introducing near-identical college-set soaps — “Greek” and “The Best Years,” respectively — within 10 days of each other. If college life were really like this, any kid wasting a moment watching TV should have his or her head examined.

By August, there will also be three reality-based bounty hunter shows.

The best of the new dramas are the kind of quirky, clever series that don’t necessarily bowl the audience over conceptually but must rather be nurtured along.

Lifetime’s “Side Order,” for example, is about a young woman whose imminent marriage inspires her to reexamine her priorities — a far more understated backdrop than that channel’s “Army Wives,” a conventional serial with an easily understandable title and patriotic, flag-waving hook.

As Variety‘s Steven Zeitchik recently reported even cable execs acknowledge that this summer tide — bearing a vague resemblance to the ritual of salmon spawning — might leave deserving shows gasping on the banks.

Turner Entertainment’s Steve Koonin even suggested that cable nets should join together to promote their own summer “season,” playing catch-up on 50 years of TV history.

Of greater concern from a qualitative standpoint is the possibility that the crush will overtake the best shows, blunting the risk-taking impulses cable has relied upon to differentiate itself from big-tent broadcasters.

A shakeout could also force some cable execs (assuming they don’t wind up beached themselves) to reconsider precisely what they hope to accomplish with their original programming strategies. Some have already established deep roots in this game, but for those just testing the waters, the expense of “branding” their channels may ultimately not be worth it — especially as their failure rates begin to mirror the three-out-of-four mortality ratio that has long governed the major networks.

Part of this can be chalked up to the inexorable proliferation of viewing options, creating plenty of hungry little mouths chirping for attention. From that perspective, there’s no such thing as a free pass any time of the year.

Still, after years boasting about their collective gains at the expense of broadcasting, cable faces a hard lesson: Having whittled the Big Four down to size, their future growth might involve simply cannibalizing one another’s audiences.

In that respect, cable is discovering that whether the calendar says July or September, once the misses begin piling up, it’s a long, sweaty march back to the drawing board.

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