Cable builds a bigger stable

Networks prep series slates that rival Big Four

HBO has a whopping 20 comedies and drama series in development, involving high-profile talent like Martin Scorsese and Sarah Jessica Parker. Showtime has more than a dozen new projects, spearheaded by names like Seth Rogen, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins.

On the basic cable side, TNT has so many series on the air and so many in the hopper that the network may expand its schedule next year to include as many as three nights of original shows.

There’s irony in these moves: Just as the broadcast networks continue to emulate the cable model — fewer pilots, more unscripted fare, more repeats and repurposing — the cablers are developing like they’re one of the Big Four.

It’s as if someone forgot to tell the cable nets that we’re in a recession. With the broadcast networks experiencing mass erosion, and producers making less money than ever off primetime broadcast skeins, why are cablers expanding their stake in that business model?

The cable honchos argue that while they may be developing with the heft of a broadcast network, looks are deceiving. They’re still programming many fewer hours than the big boys, and their flexible model allows them to expand and contract at will.

“We’re not looking to move to other nights, and we’re certainly not looking to move into a broadcast network paradigm,” says HBO West Coast chief Michael Lombardo.

Lombardo says the pay-cabler’s goal is simply to fill its Sunday evening sked throughout the year with original series. “This is all because we had matured out of a lot of shows, and we have a lot of Sundays to fill.”

While they may be looking at a lot of pilots, cable network toppers feel in no way beholden to develop 22 hours a week of original series. And if the moribund TV advertising business continues to worsen, they’re not necessarily committed to greenlighting a predetermined number of shows.

“We still have a very different business (model) from the networks in that we have no volume aspect,” says Joel Stillerman, senior VP of original programming for AMC.

After getting into the originals game in a big way with Emmy winners “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” AMC has more than half a dozen shows in development. Nonetheless, the cabler says it will remain choosy in what it winds up ordering to series.

“We have the luxury of being able to grow at our own pace. … We certainly have a mandate to grow, but not in a quantifiable way,” Stillerman says.

Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt also eschews the broadcast biz model, calling it “somewhat archaic.”

“But I’m not saying the broadcast business is worthless either,” he notes. “For example, we’ve never really had lead-ins before. When you have two or three shows you can program together, that gives you a sense of momentum.”

Executing on that ethos, Showtime will debut its new multipersonality-themed comedy “United States of Tara” from Diablo Cody on Jan. 18, bookending the bow with the season premiere of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” and the series finale of “The L Word.”

“That’s a rich little mix of shows, but that’s as far as we’ll go at one time,” Greenblatt says.

Meanwhile, not only are original-programming vets like HBO, Showtime, TNT and FX continuing to expand their slates, but development activity is more prevalent across a greater number of cable nets. Beyond the suddenly busy AMC, nets like Starz have also entered the arena in an effort to burnish their brands and grow viewership.

FX exec VP of original programming Nick Grad says his network’s development has largely been steady over the last few years, with a limited number of pilots yielding successful shows including “Damages” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

“I think the rise in cable development is mainly coming from new entrants into the scripted business,” he says.

Cable programming execs also insist the uniqueness of their brands largely keeps them from being forced into bidding wars for projects from high-profile creative talent — driving up prices and undermining the modest economic model of most basic and premium cable series.

HBO or AMC would probably be a poor fit for James Duff’s follow-up to his TNT procedural hit “The Closer,” for example. Likewise, the detective drama being developed by “The Shield” mastermind Shawn Ryan for male-skewing FX probably wouldn’t find a great home on more female-targeted Showtime.

“We don’t do (bidding) by design,” AMC’s Stillerman says. “We see more and more material that comes to us first out of a real desire to be here.”

The new competition “hasn’t changed the economic model a great deal,” adds HBO’s Lombardo. “The other cable networks that have gotten active in the series business over the years have largely stayed in the same economic ballpark that we established.”

Still, there are areas of competitive overlap, such as the star-driven half-hour dramedy genre that HBO pioneered nearly a decade ago with “Sex and the City,” and Showtime has since entered into with skeins like “Weeds.”

“They’re both competing for the same kind of viewer,” notes a cable programming exec who wished not to be identified while speaking about the competish. “It’s the same brand.”

“With rare exceptions, we try to stay out of competitive bidding situations,” Lombardo states, noting that bidding for projects is one element that doesn’t fit given the economics of the cable world. “Bidding is something one sees more acutely in the broadcast network business.”

And that’s one model these comparatively gung-ho cable nets want to avoid.

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