Nets hope syndie coin follows creativity boom

This year’s Primetime Emmy nominations confirmed what most people in the biz already knew: Cable is on the leading edge of originality and innovative storytelling in series programming.

However, the noms say little about how cable will support its creative crescendo financially.

Basic cable (and satellite-delivered) channels are reveling in their breakthrough year with drama series noms for AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages.” With its nom for “Dexter,” Showtime also moved into a category that had long been the province of the Big Four broadcast nets and HBO. The cable biz has come a long way from the bad old days of the extreme segregation between broadcast and cable in terms of prestige (remember the CableACE Awards?) and profitmaking.

But as cable expands its menu of original scripted series, there are concerns about audience oversaturation and an even bigger worry about whether there will be enough of a backend payoff on high-end shows like “Damages” and “Mad Men” to make it worth a studio’s while to produce them.

The best-case scenario arguably starts with Sony Pictures TV, which has as much experience with selling off-cable programs as any of the majors, having sold the rerun rights to HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” to Bravo nearly a decade ago. More recently, Sony helped ease concerns about whether a basic cable show could find a home on a rival cabler when it sold rerun rights to FX’s “The Shield” which Sony co-produced with Fox TV Studios) to Spike TV.

Sony also found interest among local broadcast TV stations for latenight weekend plays of that gritty copshow, and those deals have added significantly to Sony and FTVS’ profits from the skein.

“‘The Shield’ broke the sound barrier in terms of one cable network picking up another cable network’s show,” says John Weiser, SPT’s prexy of distribution.

“Broadcast and cable networks are looking for high-quality, well-written, well-cast shows. We’re confident that there’s always going to be a backend for quality.”

Indeed, from a creative view, it’s impressive that so many young cable skeins have blossomed in the past few years to become serious Emmy contenders. There is, of course, still a big gap in the budget of a show produced for FX or USA Network vs. a show produced for Fox or NBC.

Yet there’s also a growing consensus in the biz that cable’s financial shortcomings vis-a-vis broadcast are offset by the broader creative leeway offered by basic and especially pay cable outlets. The pressure to perform big on opening night is not as intense on cable, although ratings scrutiny is growing as cable shows attract more attention.

And there’s a “specialness” factor for creatives in cable that is hard to find on the broadcast side, longtime industry people note. Cablers tend to launch one or two programs at a time, pouring all of their resources into a strong sendoff for a show. Even with midseason premieres on broadcast nets, it’s hard for one show, and one creative team, to command centerstage as they often do in cable.

“I love my cable business,” says a top TV packaging agent who until recently worked exclusively in broadcast. “I love working with people at networks that really know what they want, and can really focus on making this show the best it can be.”

The nagging questions about the long-term demand for off-cable shows come at a time when the entire TV industry is roiling from ongoing changes to primetime’s venerable business model.

Even broadcast shows struggle to command the seven-figures-per-episode syndie paydays they enjoyed just a few years ago. And while the new digital platforms for programming command a lot of ink and attention, they still only generate a fraction of the coin that comes from a traditional syndication sale.

The production community has taken note that Warner Bros. TV has yet to license off-net rights to FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” despite the show’s continued success and longevity. Nor does Warners appear to have tested the waters for its TNT stalwart “The Closer.” In contrast, HBO will reap riches for years to come from the sale of “The Sopranos” reruns to A&E as well as “Sex and the City” encores to TBS and local stations.

Sony’s next sales project will be FX’s “Rescue Me,” with “Damages” and “Breaking Bad” coming down the road (pending continued success).

Other off-cable scripted skeins ripening for syndication in the next two years or so include Showtime’s “Weeds” and “Dexter,” Lifetime’s “Army Wives,” USA’s “Psych” and “Burn Notice” and TNT’s “Saving Grace.”

The traditional route to backend profits for cable originals was for the originating network to buy the off-network rights to keep the show identified with the channel, as USA has done with its long-running “Monk.” But with so many projects in the pipeline, there are not enough hours in the sked to accommodate the volume.

Weiser admits the next few years will be competitive for cable originals, just as the syndie biz is at times when the broadcast nets are flush with shows going the distance to 100 or so episodes.

“From our standpoint, we’re happy to invest in quality programming for cable,” the Sony maven says. “If you have a high-quality show and know how to market it and what the value-proposition is (for prospective buyers), cable is a very good business to be in right now.”

VARIETY’S ROAD TO THE EMMYS

Tuesday: The Actress

Wednesday: The Actor

Thursday: Crix’ Picks

Friday: Reality and Nonfiction

Aug. 18: The Director

Aug. 19: The Writer/the Producer

Aug. 20: Down to the Wire

EMMY CALENDAR

Aug. 22: Deadline for returning Creative Arts Awards ballots

Aug. 29: Deadline for returning remaining awards ballots

Sept. 13: Creative Arts Awards and ball

Sept. 21: Emmy ceremony (broadcast on ABC) and ball

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