Cable hits the wall

Channels spend more, but viewership stagnant

Never has the cable pie been more lavishly stuffed with high-quality filling — but never has it been more thinly sliced.

This summer, cablers are chock full o’ new scripted series, including those that have already debuted (USA’s “Burn Notice,” Lifetime’s “Army Wives”) and upcoming fare (FX’s “Damages,” TNT’s “Saving Grace”), while returning shows include TNT’s “The Closer” and FX’s “Rescue Me.”

The one-time vast wasteland of cable networks filled with repeats and wrestling has been replaced by a world in which even networks as small as Sundance Channel are producing quality first-run fare.

No longer a band of misfits, basic cable’s top nets are spending more money on original fare and making more noise with marketing — yet they aren’t seeing their numbers grow. They’re having to do more just to maintain the status quo.

After years of chipping away at their broadcast brethren, top-tier cablers now realize that they can no longer count on unchecked growth. Cable has hit the saturation point.

With the average household able to tune in more than 100 channels (up from just 61 at the turn of the century), the same fragmentation that’s hurt the Big Four is now impacting cable.

“You look at all those shows being curtain-raised and, man, it’s spectacular,” says Hallmark Channel exec VP of programming David Kenin. “It’s hard for me to stay up with what’s premiering, and I’m supposed to do that on a daily basis as part of my job.”

Kenin says that Hallmark for the time being is focusing on TV movies instead of original series, deciding that the field was already too jam-packed.

“If you analyze the number of series that haven’t worked, you say ‘Yikes!’ ” he says. “Maybe that’s for us in a year or two. But being a newer cable network, we didn’t like the risk of original series.”

Occasionally, a smaller network can break through. But among cable’s top 10 nets, the overall ratings have remained pretty steady for years.

MagnaGlobal researcher Steve Sternberg notes that even now, no cable net has managed to average a 1.0 rating or better among adults 18-49 in primetime during the regular season — and that “only a handful even manage a 0.5 average rating.”

“With a new network joining here and there, the higher-rated cable networks have basically been unchanged over the past five years, with only a few moving from the mid- to high-tier,” Sternberg wrote in a recent study.

Part of the problem is sameness. Cable is no longer the daring alternative to broadcast networks. When cable channels were more clearly defined and branded, audiences were more loyal. Now conglom owners are demanding broader appeal, and it’s harder to distinguish networks.

And clouding the prospects further are broadcasters, which have flooded summer — traditionally cable’s prime launching pad — with (mostly unscripted) originals.

“All the broadcast networks realized that you can’t cede that audience to cable,” says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman.

At first glance, the picture may look rosy.

TNT’s “The Closer” scored broadcast-level numbers with its recent season premiere, while Lifetime has scored a huge hit with “Army Wives.” VH1, A&E and Bravo have also wowed in the last year with reality shows.

“Cable hits are getting bigger and broadcast hits are getting smaller,” argues Lifetime research expert Tim Brooks. “If something doesn’t change, the lines will meet.”

But cable’s flood of original programming runs counter to what’s always been one of the industry’s strengths — namely, the ability to roll shows on a slow timetable. While broadcast webs were forced to throw on dozens of shows in order to fill their 22-hour primetime lineups, cable took a leisurely approach, launching only one or two shows for an entire year.

That strategy ensured that each newcomer got the full marketing and promotional support it needed to break through. Now, with cablers sometimes premiering two or three shows in a month (Lifetime will preem two in mid-July on the same day), some are bound to fall through the cracks.

Turner Entertainment Networks prexy Steve Koonin believes that’s a big mistake.

“If you’re going to spend the money to buy a Ferrari, you better save some for gas,” he says.

The exec notes that cable’s smaller overall audience means its shows must be promoted extensively in arenas other than the network itself.

“When cable has spent more on marketing, it’s grown its audience,” Koonin explains. In other words, those huge season premiere numbers for TNT’s “The Closer” or TBS’s “House of Payne” didn’t come out of nowhere.

“The secret sauce that distinguishes us from most networks is our marketing,” he says.

The Turner nets suffer, however, from the same problem that’s plaguing many cable originals : big premiere numbers boosted by massive marketing, followed by a steep ratings dropoff for subsequent episodes once the promo dollars dry up.

The onslaught of cable originals this summer can probably be chalked up to a couple of factors.

First, many of cable’s biggest success stories are getting long in the tooth.

FX’s “The Shield,” Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” and USA’s “Monk” are nearing the end of their lifespans. In the pay-cable arena, HBO, one of the industry’s biggest drivers of first-run scripted fare, has said farewell to “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and soon “Deadwood” and “The Wire.”

“Shows age, and a lot of cable networks continue to rely on the shows that put them on the map,” says one broadcast network exec. “Cable is not immune to the issues that broadcast networks face when they hold on to shows for too long.”

Nets that have lost these signature shows are scrambling to replace them, while rivals sense an opportunity to capture the lost eyeballs

Then there’s the growth issue.

During cable’s startup phase, nets were almost guaranteed to grow their audience each year as more and more people subscribed to cable.

Also, few cablers — save the top dogs like USA — were cleared throughout the country, leaving room for additional distribution and audience growth.

But these days, digital cable has assured almost universal distribution to at least the top 50 cable nets. And now that just about everyone who wants cable (or satellite) has it, the days of “instagrowth” are over.

The stagnant list of top-tier nets has led to a number of programming missteps over the past few years, with some cablers abandoning long-established, successful brands in the quest for bigger ratings.

With increased distribution comes more regular advertisers (bye-bye, direct marketing) — which provide greater revenue, but also demand a wider and more engaged audience.

Hence the decision to abandon the niche and take a stab at going younger and broader. Discovery and TLC went on a ratings roller-coaster ride by dumping educational programming for home makeover shows — getting a big boost at first but then a steep fall-off. (They are, however, getting their mojo back with hits such as “Planet Earth.”)

FX may have made a mistake straying from its male-focused roots with softer shows such as “Dirt” and “The Riches,” though advance buzz on the ballsy “Damages” could quiet such chatter.

A&E felt the need to go broad in order to keep up with the Joneses, and has seen ratings surge with shows about tattoo artists and aging rockers.

“What they have done is nothing short of brilliant,” Kenin says. “How do you get people who are watching ‘Law & Order’ reruns and BBC dramas to embrace ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’? It took awhile, but only through the loss of ‘Law & Order’ did they confront what they had to do — and they confronted it beautifully.”

Nonetheless, some fear it’s a strategy that could backfire.

“These days A&E stands for ‘anything and everything,’ ” one rival says. “I don’t get it.”

So many broad-skewing cablers wind up targeting the same demo — and that’s where the erosion starts to set in.

“The advice I give to people is ‘beware of the false positive,’ ” says Disney Channel Worldwide topper Rich Ross. “T
here are times you can make things off-brand, and it may resonate with an audience. But at the end of the day, if it’s not the audience that comes to you, they’ll come to watch and then leave. Our goal is to program to people who spend a lot of time with us.”

ABC Family prexy Paul Lee notes that his net has managed to get much bigger without giving up its brand as a home for upbeat, family-centric programming. Instead, he and boss Disney-ABC TV prez Anne Sweeney decided to target a much younger demo of older teens and twenty- and thirtysomethings — and then program relentlessly to that seg.

“You can only grow yourself by defining yourself as a destination,” Lee argues. “A great brand, a defined audience and quality shows are the only things that will work.”

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