TV historian Tim Brooks remembers the lean days of cable when the broadcast networks lorded it over the TV universe.
“You’d finally get a cable show that drew lots of viewers,” says Brooks, co-author of an encyclopedic directory of every primetime show ever scheduled, “but then reality set in — the highest-rated cable-TV series would never quite be able to beat out the lowest-rated primetime show on broadcast TV.”
Not any more. The TV industry got a jolt when the Nielsen numbers came in for the week ended Aug. 3. Eight scripted-original cable shows finished among the 11 most-watched ad-supported programs, and all of them averaged more than 4 million.
“That’s unprecedented,” says Mike Greco, executive VP of research for Lifetime.
Four million used to mean instant cancellation for a primetime series on broadcast TV. But at least two dozen broadcast-network primetime series this summer have attracted fewer than 4-million viewers, mostly repeats or firstrun burnoff airing on lightly watched nights like Friday and Saturday. (But repeats of some broadcast dramas like “CSI” and “House” still draw 7-to-8-million viewers from June through August.)
For ad-supported cable this summer, scripted firstrun dramas, as a category, have shot up by double digits in total viewers and among people 18 to 49 compared with the same period last year. Cable TV set the previous record in 2007, when seven original hourlong series each ended up averaging more than 4-million viewers over the course of the summer.
This summer, nine of the 11 returning hours were up from their previous cycles in total viewers, six of the nine by double digits. Leading the way is top-rated USA, which is airing an unprecedented five firstrun series at the same time (rookie hit “In Plain Sight,” second-year hit “Burn Notice” and vets “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Monk” and “Psych”).
But does such success mean USA and its key rivals TNT and FX will dip their toes further into the waters of fall and winter to take on a potentially vulnerable broadcast biz?
Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming for media buyer Carat, isn’t so sure. She says most scripted originals are likely to crawl back into cable hibernation as the weather gets colder. “These big numbers for cable are largely a phenomenon of the summer,” she says.
Cable has certainly stuffed most of its scripted shows into the summer months in the past, seizing on broadcast TV’s inclination to take the summer off. A broadcast diet of reruns and cheap reality shows gave cable the opening it needed to narrow the gap.
But cable’s early fall is starting to look like an extension of the summer for scripted originals. TNT has Steven Bochco’s legal drama “Raising the Bar” set to kick off Sept. 1. FX’s biker melodrama “Sons of Anarchy” begins Sept. 3. ABC Family’s six-hour limited series “Samurai Girl,” which is serving as a backdoor pilot, starts Sept. 5. And another six-hour limited series, “Starter Wife,” which scored big numbers last summer on USA, begins its new life as a weekly series starring Debra Messing on Oct. 10.
Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, says TNT is getting “Raising the Bar” on the air Sept. 1 to build viewer loyalty for a few weeks before the massive marketing budgets kick in for the shows it’ll compete with on Monday, including “CSI: Miami” on CBS and “Boston Legal” on ABC.
By pushing early-September premieres, Wakshlag says, TNT, FX and ABC Family are employing a tactic used with some success by the Fox network against the Big Three in the late ’80s, and by the WB against the Big Four during the ’90s.
Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media, says scripted originals are bound to spill onto cable schedules year-round because more networks are doing these kinds of shows than every before.
USA, TNT and FX have traditionally made the most noise with scripted originals, but the hottest show this summer is ABC Family’s soap opera about a pregnant 15-year-old, “Secret Diary of the American Teenager.”
AMC has chalked up a humongous 16 Emmy nominations for “Mad Men,” whose numbers are up this summer — the show’s second season — by 52%. But “Mad Men” is basically running on prestige, averaging only 1.5-million viewers, about half of whom are older than the prized 18-49 demo.
Lifetime is riding the wave of its biggest series hit ever, “Army Wives,” which is averaging 4.3- million viewers, including 1.85 million in its target demo of women 18-49. Sci Fi Channel’s summer originals “Eureka” and “Stargate Atlantis” have drawn more viewers than last summer, and A&E has jumped back into the scripted game for the first time in seven years with a rookie series “The Cleaner,” with Benjamin Bratt, which is averaging 2.5 million viewers, 1.3 million of whom are 18 to 49.
Firstrun hours are clearly in vogue, and one big reason, says Adgate, is that more originals mean cable networks can get bigger license fees from cable operators, who regularly clamor for programming that’s not available on broadcast TV.
Money from cable operators represents as much as 40% of the annual revenues of cable networks, so if the ops want originals, they’re going to get originals.
“One thing you can be sure of,” Adgate says. “The trend toward cable originals is not going to get reversed.”