Ozzie & Harriet bio boffo

Nelsons rocket Nielsens to record high

NEW YORK — Cable subscribers treated A&E’s warts-and-all “Biography” special on Ozzie & Harriet Sunday night like a real-life version of “The Truman Show,” making it the highest-rated “Biography” episode in the history of the network.

The combined Nielsen rating for the original cablecast of the special at 8 p.m. on June 21 and its repeat at midnight averaged a 4.8, beating the previous “Biography” record holder, Sam Walton, which harvested a 4.6 combined rating in December 1997.

Even more impressive, A&E researchers said the Ozzie & Harriet two hours ended up the second-highest-rated overall show in the channel’s history, losing only to the 1996 miniseries adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice.”

The impressive ratings for the “Biography” special episode are one more indication of just how important so-called “signature shows” have become for cablers in their ongoing battle to shanghai viewers from the broadcast networks.

Like A&E’s “Biography,” Atlanta Braves games on TBS, “South Park” on Comedy Central, “La Femme Nikita” on USA Network and CNBC’s “Business Center” are all signature shows that beam a dazzling spotlight on the cable networks that carry them.

When A&E transformed its weekly “Biography” into a five-times-a-week primetime series four years ago, the network jumped permanently into the top-10 highest-rated among basic cable networks, despite the fact that its overall bill of fare draws heavily on docus and Brit-produced adaptations of literary classics.

Similarly, TBS has turned the Atlanta Braves into what the superstation bills as “America’s team” by covering more than 100 of the team’s games every year for more than two decades.

Comedy Central, still way behind the subscriber count of the top 20 mass-circulation cable networks, is starting to take off because of just one weekly half-hour show, “South Park,” which has parlayed a group of foul-mouthed third-graders into the highest-rated adult-comedy series in cable history.

CNBC’s real primetime is not 8-11 p.m., but the morning and afternoon, when advertisers pay a premium to reach upscale viewers who follow the stock market. CNBC’s real signature shows are the 7 p.m. “Business Center” wrapup and the 8-10 a.m. “Squawk Box,” which provides a preview of the day’s market.

“Creating a definable brand for your network is critical in today’s environment, and signature shows are a big help,” says Abbe Raven, senior VP of programming for History Channel.

John Ford, senior VP and G.M. of TLC (the Learning Channel), adds, “A strong signature show can anchor the network’s schedule and provide a promotional platform” for other programming on the channel’s schedule.

Once a signature show breaks out, the cable network will start boosting the production budget.

Trey Stone and Matt Parker, the twentysomethings who created and produce “South Park,” signed a $15 million deal earlier this year to turn out 40 more half-hours of the show for Comedy Central.

And A&E will commission a staggering 140 hours of “Biography” for the 1998-99 season at a cost of well above $20 million.

In addition to the now well-established “Biography” core viewership, the particular “Ozzie and Harriet” special that rated so highly also capitalized on ’50s nostalgia.

“It was like watching a train wreck, with America’s family going through a terrible crisis,” says Michael Cascio, senior VP of programming for A&E. “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” began its life as a radio series, then ran on ABC’s primetime schedule from Oct. 2, 1952, to Sept. 3, 1966, a surprisingly long life for a series that dealt mostly with the bland minutiae of middle-class life.

But David and eventual rock star Ricky, the real-life sons of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, became celebrities as cameras recorded their lives week after week from adolescence to adulthood and marriage.