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Cable at a loss for legs

Auds flee summer skeins after big bows

More than ever, cable nets are showing they can bring viewers to the party — but keeping that buzz going is a far more difficult task.

Several weeks in, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” is maintaining its premiere momentum and Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is notching ratings boosts from its post-“Will & Grace” airings on NBC.

But the real story of the summer is how cable has trouble keeping its original series in orbit.

Summertime frosh bows on USA (“Peacemakers,”) A&E (“MI-5”), Spike (“Stripperella”) and Comedy Central (“Reno 911”) generated the expected gushy ratings press releases from cablers.

Not as touted: The fact that those sky-high premiere numbers nose-dived in succeeding weeks.

What’s more, nets seem unable to sustain once-large auds for once-red hot series in succeeding seasons.

  • Last week’s season finale of MTV staple “The Osbournes” posted a paltry 2.8 million viewers. (First season finale chalked 7.8 million.) Overall, the third season averaged a 1.9 in 18-49 compared with season one’s stellar 4.0 in the same demo.

  • Season two of USA’s “The Dead Zone” lost 31% of its households and 38% in 18-49 demo (2.4 to 1.4).

  • Meanwhile, second season of net’s detective dramedy “Monk” is up slightly in households but down 10% in 18-49 (1.7).

  • FX’s recently axed “Lucky,” which bowed to a so-so 2.5 million viewers, crapped out by season end with an average .77 rating in 18-49.

Of course, cable has to contend with a high-on-originals summer from its broadcast competitors.

To date, primetime numbers for broadcast this summer are down just 3% year to year in 18-49 — not bad considering there was no giant “American Idol” hit to pump up the numbers.

Meanwhile, basic cablers are up this summer a scant 1% — a sharp decline from cable’s previous increases of 9% and 10% over the last two years.

Indeed, the Big Four’s summer slate, chockfull as it was with new reality skeins, has taken a toll on its cable competish.

“Let’s face it. This year the nets sort of woke up and put on a lot more original programming,” USA exec VP-GM Michele Ganeless says.

NBC entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker says each cable net operates on its own timetable, leaving viewers dangling for months between seasons.

“Shows run for 13 weeks on cable and then they go away,” Zucker says. “That makes it a lot harder for the viewer to form a habit like they can on broadcast.”

Series maintenance seems to be a business model better suited to broadcast, per TNT and TBS exec VP Steve Koonin.

Koonin says he won’t be ordering new 22-seg scripted series for his nets any time soon. (Last stab at original skeins, “Witchblade” and “Bull,” fizzled.)

“When a cable network launches a new series, they have a huge marketing build-up to the premiere, but they rarely have the resources for upkeep,” Koonin says. “We’re a top-rated network, but we can’t sustain a voice to the viewer 52 weeks a year. I think cable is fighting an uphill battle.”

Unlike its broadcast counterparts, cablers on limited funds often burn up the bulk of their marketing fuel to hype premieres. And even if a channel nets a hit, “it’s a fallacy that one show will make a network,” Koonin notes.

The economics of a hit show can also prove costly for cablers.

“The lion’s share of the budget is spent on the opening,” Ganeless says. “And, depending on the show, only a small part is spent on continuity.”

Contract renegotiations and keeping the talent happy alone — see the recent “Everybody Loves Raymond” debacle — can drive up the price airing an original series.

Adding to the difficulties is that cable schedules are often a medley of acquired series and movies padding one or two hit original series — not quite the year-round promotional platforms that broadcast nets enjoy.

“That means there isn’t a loyal audience watching every night,” Zucker notes.

And most cable nets, still struggling in their brand-building efforts, are often forced to nestle their originals within acquired goods meant for different auds. The premiere of Tom Berenger-toplined “Peacemakers,” for example, followed the Ben Stiller laffer “Meet the Parents.”

“CBS can sustain itself promoting another comedy around ‘Raymond,'” Koonin says. “But cable has to rely on the shows themselves to keep people coming back. That isn’t enough.”

There are exceptions: Season two of “The Shield” on FX, fresh off an Emmy win, maintained its overall and demo numbers.

And Lifetime has been consistent with longrunning hits “The Division” and “Strong Medicine.”

Execs agree, however, that returning skeins are never as bright and shiny as they were when they were new.

“Most second seasons just don’t do as well on cable. After that initial effort, it’s really hard to garner attention all over again for the same show,” Ganeless says.