Summer TV Preview: Cable Takes Advantage of Broadcast’s Slow Period

Even in this era of too much TV, summer remains a slow period. Though broadcasters are no longer content to run wall-to-wall reruns from June through August, they still save their top guns for fall and midseason. That leaves an opening for cable. Channels looking to make noise with original efforts can do so in the hottest months without going head-to-head with broadcast’s biggest shows. This summer, a handful of networks are looking to take advantage of that opportunity.

AMC

What’s coming: “Preacher” (May 22) and “Feed the Beast” (June 5) (pictured top)

What’s at stake: At first glance, AMC is riding high. Last year, freshman series “Fear the Walking Dead,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Into the Badlands” debuted to the highest, second-highest, and third-highest ratings of any scripted cable series ever in Nielsen live-plus-three viewing. But those big bows came on the back of “The Walking Dead,” TV’s most-watched non-football show: “Fear” is a spin-off, and the premieres of “Saul” and “Badlands” received lead-ins. The latter two saw steep ratings drop-offs later in their seasons, when they no longer followed “The Walking Dead.”

With “Preacher,” which will premiere after the midseason finale of “Fear,” AMC looks to establish a new genre hit outside the “Walking Dead” franchise — something “Badlands” has yet to become. For “Feed the Beast,” the optimal outcome would be to score the type of critical and awards-season acclaim that “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” consistently drew — but “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” and “Humans” have not.

Cinemax

What’s coming: “Outcast” (June 3)

What’s at stake: Cinemax waded into original-series waters with entries such as “Strike Back” and “Hunted” — action-oriented offerings that dovetailed nicely with the network’s film library. More recent efforts such as Alan Ball’s “Banshee” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” saw the HBO-run premium channel maintain its focus on gritty, male-skewing programs, but also showed a willingness to invest in work from high-profile creators.

“Outcast,” from “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, keeps Cinemax on that path. But the move comes at a critical time: The network debuted no new scripted series last year. “Banshee” ends its final season May 20, and “The Knick” faces an uncertain future, with Soderbergh having told Variety in January that he wants “to keep the bar at the same height or higher” before committing to another season. If Cinemax is going to become more than a part-time original-programming player, it could use a “Walking Dead”-style franchise.

History

What’s coming: “Roots” (May 30)

What’s at stake: With “Hatfields & McCoys” in 2012 and “The Bible” the following year, History is a go-to channel for event programming — each mini-series debuted to more than 13 million viewers in Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings. But subsequent efforts failed to spark.

The network tries again on Memorial Day with “Roots,” a remake of the miniseries that was watched by more than half the U.S. population in 1979. Parent company A+E Networks had to outbid several competitors to land the project. But if the new “Roots” underperforms creatively or ratings-wise, History risks being the network that messed up a fresh take on a historic piece of television.

TNT

What’s coming: “Animal Kingdom” (June 14)

What’s at stake: TNT remains one of cable’s top-rated networks but does so largely on the back of syndicated reruns and sports. With on-demand and digital options making reruns less attractive to viewers, parent Turner Broadcasting had to shift that strategy.

It did so by hiring former Fox and NBC chief Kevin Reilly as president of TNT and sister network TBS and charging him to push into more ambitious originals. “Animal Kingdom,” starring Ellen Barkin, is the first drama developed by Reilly for TNT. Its success or failure could set the tone for subsequent efforts.

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