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Cable networks revisit well

VH1, Bravo among those riding one genre

For years, cable nets were maligned for adjusting their brand what seemed like every few months.

But with so many nets enjoying ratings success, another question is brewing: Are some not adjusting them enough?

The announcement several weeks ago that Bravo had greenlit “Manhattan Moms” provided the latest example of a net drawn back to a well it had previously visited.

The “Watch What Happens” channel was aping a formula (rich women juggling social and familial responsibilities) we’d happened to watch before on “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” The net’s competition-reality genre has been deployed even more relentlessly: What began with moviemaking has now migrated, with varying results, to fashion, food, interior design and hairdressing.

VH1, meanwhile, continues to turn out so many celebreality creations it could be pulling them from a clown car. Scott Baio, Bret Michaels and the R&B duo Salt-N-Pepa are the latest to offer the joy of watching former celebs try to revive or cling to past fame.

The net has now dipped into the genre so often it’s able to air “Celeb Rehab,” a show it greenlit last month in which many of the B-listers we watched implode in previous skeins try to right their life in this one.

“Everyone loves train-wreck television,” says an exec at one VH1 competitor, “but there is such a thing as too much train-wreck television.”

Even on the more originality friendly scripted side, USA can practically take out a patent on the lighthearted mystery/actioner, with a primetime lineup of “Monk,” “Psych,” “Burn Notice” and the forthcoming “In Plain Sight.”

Right behind some of these nets are venues like the History Channel, whose “Ice Road Truckers” was such a surprise hit that the net could end up going as slaphappy for nonscripted action as it once went for WWII documentaries.

In some ways, the overkill is a respite from the usual cable problem: constant reinvention (an affliction that, incidentally, still plagues nets such as A&E and Spike).

Cable operators like when nets establish a brand, because it allows for a reliable audience, ensuring they’ll get sufficient bang for their affiliate fees.

And it’s not that these copycat shows are necessarily a bad idea — VH1’s “Rock of Love” and USA’s “Burn Notice” pulled in, respectively, more than 2 and 3 million viewers this summer. It’s that they may be too much of a good idea.

By not adjusting, experts warn that these nets could become vulnerable to the so-called ” ‘Millionaire’ factor.” That’s when ABC rode “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” so hard, the show wore out its welcome, and the net was caught without enough development to fill the void.

“When you hit on something that’s working, you can perpetuate it so much that people stop watching,” Syracuse U. professor Robert Thompson says. “Some of these cable networks aren’t there yet, but they need to move before things fall apart, not after.”

VH1’s most recent development slate shows just a few signs of moving. It’s dotted with diversity (the Lance Krall improv show “Free Radio”) but filled with celebreality.

The net is even back in business with Danny Bonaduce for a new reality show (this time he watches other parents try not to turn their child actors into, well, him).

Experts also wonder if cable is now falling into the same trap the broadcast nets fell into — the one that drove many viewers to cable in the first place as they abandoned, say, the 43rd network procedural for the originality of “The Shield.”

The main cautionary tale on cable is TLC, which ran “Trading Spaces” and its imitators so often that it sent the net into a multiyear ratings slump.

A network can also become so attached to its niche that a foray into new territory becomes that much harder; viewers simply aren’t used to seeing that kind of programming on the net. (Witness, for example, VH1’s flopped scripted experiment “I Hate My 30s,” or Bravo’s very un-Bravo dud “Hey Paula”).

Still, experts say that a little consistency isn’t a bad thing.

After all, it wasn’t so many years ago when Bravo was veering from arts programming to movies, and VH1 lurched from “American Bandstand” reruns to “Behind the Music.”

“Some deviation is good,” U. of Arizona prof Kevin Sandler says. “But you need to be careful. You don’t want to change so much that you’re inorganic to the brand you’ve worked so hard building up.”

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