Not much elbow room for cablers

Abdul, Close, Hunter sign on for shows

The cable industry is going through its own version of the box office glut.

An eye-popping number of originals are premiering on cable this summer; by one count, there are 33 skeins airing across 12 major nets.

Of those shows, 19 are brand new, providing a dizzying mix of stars, series and stories. There’s Holly Hunter as a cop, John Leguizamo as a bank robber, Glenn Close as a legal shark and Paula Abdul as, well, Paula Abdul; Tyler Perry brings the funny, the Bush administration gets animated and David Duchovny tries to solve … writers’ block.

On some nights, three or four series will try to land an audience for the first time — a situation insiders say is untenable.

The mortality rate for new shows this summer might be unusually high, “and it won’t be because the show isn’t good,” says Matthew Cherniss, FX’s senior veep for comedy and drama development.

Summer’s importance to cable has been growing for years. But this season, several other factors are in play. New players are entering the game, while existing players are multiplying their offerings — all at a record rate.

The number of days in June and July, on the other hand, have stayed the same. That leaves cable nets to trip over each other — and themselves — trying to break out originals.

The schedule presents juicy subplots worthy of “Army Wives,” “The Kill Point” and “The Dead Zone” (all airing on Sunday night):

  • Head-to head competish. Thursday will see USA’s frosh renegade-agent show “Burn Notice” pitted against AMC’s period Madison Avenue drama “Mad Men”; Wednesday will have FX’s male-skewing “Rescue Me” battling against Comedy Central’s young-male toon series “Li’l Bush.”

  • The Newbie Effect. Sunday offers a rash of rookies: three new series on Lifetime, two on HBO, one each on Spike and Showtime. Will viewers embrace so many unknowns?

  • Inner conflict. Mondays in August present the delicious case of Turner competing against itself: TNT’s medical drama “Heartland” faces off against TBS’ sports comedy “My Boys.”

To be heard above the noise, nets are trying some unusual marketing. Turner, for example, is sending out DVD mailers of “The Closer” to beauty parlor staffers so they can chat up the show to customers while applying highlights. And as part of a promotion for “My Boys,” the net is dispatching “Wing Man Vans” to bar-heavy areas that will give bargoers the free use of a “wing man” — a person who runs interference so that his friend can pick up a woman.

And Bravo is enlisting another net — NBC U sib Telemundo — in a partnership to promote “Top Chef,” as well as buying time in Fox food skein “Hell’s Kitchen.

The influx of new shows could stretch marketing budgets. While exact figures are hard to come by, execs around the biz said things like “there’s only so much money to go around.” With FX, TNT and Bravo pouring millions into “Damages,” “Heartland” and “Hey Paula,” where will that will leave returning shows like “Rescue Me” and “The Closer”?

Capturing media and consumers’ attention could be tough even with unlimited coin; there are only so many billboards.

Still, execs say they’d prefer the relative breathing room of summer to the broadcast nets’ shootout in the fall. “There’s a season now,” says Turner Entertainment EVP and COO Steve Koonin. “If we’re smart as a brand, all the cable networks would get together and market it that way.” (Nets like HBO take out spots in competing basic-cable originals.)

It also helps that, except for reality shows — including staples like “Hell’s Kitchen” and CBS’ “Big Brother” — broadcast nets steer clear of summer.

And unlike broadcast series, nets don’t need to lock down a huge aud — just a piece of one. “Broadcast may need an 8 or 9 (household) rating to be considered a hit,” says Lifetime’s Tim Brooks. “With cable you need a three or four. You can have two of those going at the same time.”

A rethinking, however, may still be inevitable.

“Summer is still the place to be, but we’re beginning to see it change,” says USA’s senior veep of marketing/brand strategy Chris McCumber, noting that “Monk” will bow in summer and then pick up again in the new year. “You’re starting to see success built in the summer move to other areas.”

In other words, it may not be long before the summer glut gives way to winter overload.

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