Cablers stick to original formula

Amid low ratings, new tide of scripted series prepped

“Peacemakers” got shot dead. “Lucky” wasn’t. And “Breaking News” couldn’t break a single episode.

The track record of original dramas on cable hasn’t been impressive with flops outnumbering hits.Despite this history, the just concluded cable upfronts unveiled slates busting at the seams with one-hours in the works.

Execs believe that the buzz generated by prestige shows can team with revenues from DVD and international sales to make the risk worth taking.

  • Having cast longing looks at the proud parents of “The Shield” and “Monk,” TNT announced its desire to spawn dramas of its own at its presentation. Among more than a dozen series in development are productions with DreamWorks, Sony, Warner and Miramax.

  • USA will likely unleash its “Frankenstein” update as a weekly in the fall and is considering recurring treatment for the sci-fi drama “The 4400” should it perform well in the summer. Exec veep Jeff Wachtel unveiled several series in the hopper last week with a goal to get two more scripted hours on the air to augment mainstays “The Dead Zone” and “Monk.”

  • Sci Fi will preem no less than three originals by year’s end, including the spinoff series “Stargate: Atlantis.”

  • Even sports channel ESPN is hurriedly choosing its next hour-long for a January premiere. First effort “Playmakers,” about the world of professional football, lasted just a season, but averaged an impressive 2.2 million overall viewers.

After loudly and repeatedly declaring itself independent of original series, TNT brass found themselves taking it all back when they unveiled their handful of series projects. Execs, no doubt, hope one of them could grow up to be the next “Dead Zone,” which drew a basic cable series-high of 6.4 million viewers in its premiere.

Move comes as only a partial surprise. Though the cabler was sittin’ pretty atop basic cable rankings last year with no homespun hits in sight, most of cable’s big dogs are throwing more bucks than ever on hour-longs.

At first glance, inexpensive reality shows may seem the cost-friendlier option for cablers without broadcast bucks to spend. Recent hits “Queer Eye,” “Newlyweds” and “American Chopper” continue to rake in ratings and headlines season after season.

But media buyers argue an expensive scripted series pays dividends in cachet.

Senior VP director of Starcom entertainment Laura Caraccioli Davis says her clients are more eager to work with cablers, which boast the dramas that have crix salivating.

“Dramas on cable tend to get much more traction in consumer press. Even ‘Lucky,’ which came and went, did,” she says.

The creative community has also chimed in, bestowing Emmy wins and noms in the acting, writing and best series categories for cable’s “Nip/Tuck,” “Monk” and “The Shield.”

Says FX entertainment prexy John Landgraf: “We’re a magnet for the creative community. They know that they can’t get that unvarnished point of view on the air anywhere else.”

Execs say scripted hours can also continue to carve a cable net’s all-important niche — gritty cop series “The Shield” stamped FX basic cable’s HBO, while the offbeat “Monk” and sci fi thriller “The Dead Zone” revived a stodgy USA.

“FX may not have made money yet on ‘The Shield,’ but it was a network maker. Sometimes when you start on this road (to original dramas), you do it as a loss leader,” Lifetime research head Tim Brooks says.

Even top-rated and brand-strong ESPN found new blood — and more female viewers — on the legs of an original hour.

“‘Playmakers’ raised the consciousness of ESPN more than any other of our products did in the last five years,” topper Mark Shapiro says. “It turned us on to a whole new audience.”

So, in spite of TNT’s repeated flops on the series side — sole success “Witchblade” was cut short in 2002 when the star abruptly quit — the “we know drama” cabler has vowed to launch its own dramatic success story by next year.

Under programming topper Michael Wright, TNT is toying with several procedural dramas, which the channel says is key to doing drama in the wired world. (Not to mention for broadcast: see “CSI,” “Cold Case Files” and “Without a Trace.”)

Says Wright: A successful series is “the gift that keeps on giving.”

In addition, co-production financing (which A&E uses to produce its spy series “MI-5” with the BBC), DVD revenues and international backend sales have made it more feasible for basic cable nets to compete with the Big Six and produce the original hourlongs coveted by cable operators and advertisers.

“Cable is known for our acquired programming but differentiated in our originals,” Wachtel says. “Dramas are an elective for basic cable but just as HBO moved to the next level on the strength of its series, basic cable is on a similar track.”