Cable networks prepare for fall

Best summer to date isn't stopping busy nets

As the sun sets on cable’s biggest summer to date, most nets aren’t looking ahead to next year — they’re actually thinking about the fall.

The June-August period yielded a remarkable number of firstrun cable series — 33 skeins across 12 major nets — including a number of frosh hits (led by “Army Wives” and “Burn Notice”) as well as several notable disappointments (“Damages,” “Heartland”).

But the fall is proving to be surprisingly robust as well. Last year saw 15 cable launches in October. This year there will be, by one count, about two dozen.

In past years, cablers shied away from the autumn and the heavy marketing guns of the broadcast nets. Conventional wisdom held that summer offered a better shot for new cable shows to find an aud, particularly since broadcasters would hang out a gone fishin’ sign come June.

But the increase in budgets and audiences for some cable shows has emboldened nets to take more shots in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve taken off our glasses that distinguish between summer and fall,” says USA-Sci Fi Channel prexy Bonnie Hammer, who opted to begin its airing of firstrun episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” in October. “People are going to track the shows that they want to watch. We no longer see the fall as a question of ‘We have to get out of harm’s way.’ ”

Mark Stern, who heads up original programming for Sci Fi, says all these factors have cablers moving toward true 52-week schedules, even if it means going right into the maw of the broadcasters come autumn. The net last year, for instance, aired “Battlestar Galactica” in the fall.

Part of the reason is that a number of nets now produce shows that wouldn’t be out of place on a broadcast net, especially in the procedural and nonscripted categories, which means they compete for some of the same fall viewers.

And part of the reason is cable’s summer logjam — particularly for nets with multiple hits — which has convinced many pay nets they have to look elsewhere.

“We used to think summer was clear sailing, but there is no ‘good’ time to launch shows anymore,” says Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt. “There aren’t any more safe harbors.”

There are also strong signals coming out of Broadcast Row that the nets (barring a strike) plan to jump into the scripted waters next summer as well, further crowding the waters.

Many cable premieres will be of returning series, including established faves such as “Nip/Tuck,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Dexter,” “Project Runway,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Stargate Atlantis.”

But there will also be some major frosh players getting fall bows. Among the big bets cablers are making this autumn:

  • “Tell Me You Love Me.” HBO’s explicit relationship drama, premiering this week, could serve as counter-programming to broadcast fare; it also may have gone in the fall because HBO has such a crowded ’08, with as many as three new and three returning series on tap.

  • Showtime, which proved that premium cablers could score in the fall when it successfully bowed “Dexter” last year, will bring back that show and “Brotherhood” later this month, while new episodes of “Weeds” and the just-renewed “Californication” will run until November.

  • “Project Runway” and “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.” Bravo is taking its flagship competition show and spinoff makeover show into the fourth quarter, hoping that the fall fashion season and good karma (“Runway” premiered in the fall) help lift the series.

  • “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” USA is bowing the former NBC series right in the fall Thursday 10 p.m. sweet spot of the nets, though Hammer acknowledges the show could move if it gets overwhelmed.

  • The celebreality genre will continue to flourish this fall, with major shows on E! (Snoop Dogg, Kim Kardashian) and VH1 (Perez Hilton) slated to be unveiled.

Still, it’s tricky for cablers to figure out when exactly to launch a show in the fall: Go too soon and you’ll run into the marketing blitz of the new broadcast shows; debut too late and you’re smack in the middle of November sweeps.

And execs caution that a fall launch for cable is still more the exception than the rule, since it’s still tough for cablers to square off against broadcast just as the season is starting.

“You drive down Sunset Boulevard and see billboard after billboard (for new network shows),” Stern says. “It’s tough for us to compete against that kind of marketing.”

That’s why many cablers making fourth-quarter bets tend to slot shows in October, when many broadcast shows are past their initial marketing blitz, according to Lifetime exec veep of research Tim Brooks, who notes that for cablers the fall is still the “third place to look” after summer and January.

And some nets are treading very carefully into the fourth quarter: TNT, for instance, isn’t likely to move its mega-hit “The Closer” out of the summer anytime soon, though for the second consecutive year it will schedule several firstrun holiday episodes.

At the same time, cable execs say the fall offers plenty of appeal, especially as the first round of shakeouts of broadcast shows occur and viewers look for alternatives.

And, sometimes, execs say, goals like branding and consumer-awareness can be even more important than hard ratings.

“Completely lying down without any new programming, which we did two fourth quarters ago, is demoralizing,” says Bravo topper Lauren Zalaznick. “If you take away that habit of a Tuesday or Wednesday night of original programming in a crowded market it’s even harder to re-establish that habit. Even if you are depressing your rating, it’s important not to drop off the face of the earth.”

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