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Nets need drama flair desperately

Ratings show cable, broadcast summer divide

HOLLYWOOD — Television auds kicked up some dust and made TNT’s epic oater “Into the West” a ratings winner this summer, but they’ve been less interested in traveling back another 1,900 years for ABC’s early Rome saga “Empire.”

But this hardly rates as a surprise.

Not because of any perceived disparity in quality — actually, critics were more likely to hail “Empire” than “West” — but because one played on cable and the other on broadcast.

For decades now, the broadcast nets have put out their “Gone Fishing” signs around Memorial Day, loading up on repeats and unscripted fare. And, especially in recent years, this has coincided with an aggressive push by cable nets to trot out their high-profile projects.

End result is that, at least when it comes to heavier scripted drama, summertime auds now are accustomed to expect the best from cable but the worst from broadcast.

TNT’s “Into the West” has been a popular draw, albeit with an older skew, as its six premiere-week airings totaled a big 23 million viewers. The net also has looked good Monday nights with new procedural crime drama “The Closer” starring Kyra Sedgwick, which opened to more than 7 million viewers.

These come on the heels of other successful summer drama launches on cable in recent years, including USA’s “Monk” and “The 4400” and FX’s “Nip/Tuck.”

Contrast this success with the miserable batting average for dramas on broadcast nets, which includes some projects that were simply “burned off” outside the traditional September-May season, and others that were tough commercial sells.

Remember Fox’s “Roar,” the heavily hyped 1997 action-adventure series set in 5th-century Ireland? It bowed with a thud in the middle of July and lasted only a month.

Other heavy-drama failures include Fox’s current cop hour “The Inside” and last year’s “The Jury,” as well as ABC’s 2001 newsroom drama “The Beast.”

ABC may have a hoofing hit on its hands with the unscripted competish series “Dancing With the Stars,” but auds have not warmed to “Empire.” It opened with a 5 share in adults 18-49, despite a heavy marketing campaign (for summer, at least) that included plenty of spots in the NBA Finals.

Results justify ABC’s decision to air the project when it would be hurt the least. (Still to come next month is HBO’s sword-and-sandals entry, “Rome.”)

Then there’s Fox’s “The Inside,” a nothing-new cop drama that also has posted 5 shares one year after the same net did even worse with courtroom hour “The Jury.”

Fox fared much better last year with “The OC,” a teen sudser that fits the mold of the lighter kind of broadcast programming auds have come to expect — lately in the form of unscripted skeins. Also, the WB created some initial sparks last year for its light, beach-based family drama “Summerland.”

Lighter, quirky fare also worked 15 years ago when CBS successfully launched “Northern Exposure” during the summer. Show built a loyal audience during its two-month run and then returned to the Eye sked the following spring.

Surprisingly, though, the nets have since shied away from taking chances on unique, lighter drama in the summer. It would be great, for example, to see CBS, which has mastered the crime genre, broaden its drama focus and launch a fun soap behind its summer hit “Big Brother.”

“Big Daddy,” anyone?

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