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Analysis: Summer Still Hot For Cable As Key Premieres Loom

As an end-of-summer mini-wave of premieres gears up, cable continues to dominate a season that the broadcast networks are certainly sweating.

USA remains on track to post cable's most-viewed primetime in the season's history, HBO’s Sunday night originals are drawing crowds the pay-TV network hasn’t seen since The Sopranos was on the schedule, and TNT got enough spark from new entry HawthoRNe to warrant a second-season pickup.

Meantime, despite a wave of original premieres, including the usual array of reality shows, no broadcast network had any breakthrough programming. Summer staples such as So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Got Talent continue to perform reliably, but Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which was a juggernaut on ABC when it premiered a decade ago, returned to low ratings, averaging under a 2 rating in the 18 to 49 demographic.

USA, which has the surprise new hit of the year in Royal Pains, has a number of shows near the top of the ratings list, with Burn Notice averaging over 6 million total viewers and 3 million demo viewers in its third season and season two of In Plain Sight averaging over 4 million viewers. Fueled by the finales of Burn Notice (7.6 million viewers), Law & Order: Criminal Intent (4.83 million) and In Plain Sight (4.44 million), the network delivered its best week ever in total viewers the first week of August, averaging 3.08 million total viewers, including 1.43 million 18-49s.

USA also premiered the final season of Monk and the fourth season of Psych Aug. 7.

Two other cable premieres this week have  some heat around them. The third season of AMC’s lauded Mad Men debuted Aug. 16, with the promotion of its historic best drama series Emmy win at its back. And on Aug. 21 Project Runway makes its debut on Lifetime after a lengthy legal battle with the program’s original network Bravo.

HBO already has its eyes on Sept. 20, when it will premiere the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the new comedy Bored To Death. The pay cabler has had its best summer in years, thanks to True Blood breaking out into a full fledged hit averaging well more than 4 million viewers, with newcomer Hung and the sixth season of Entourage bringing in over 3 million people. Those numbers do not count replays or on-demand, which boost the ratings substantially when factored in.

TNT’s second-season order for the solid-performing, though not spectacularly-rated, HawthoRNe was one of a couple of somewhat surprising original programming decisions the second-place basic cable network unveiled last week. While the new medical drama will be back, TNT said Saving Grace will see its final season in summer 2010.

A report from the Los Angeles Times says that the decision to kill Grace came from Fox Television Studios, which produces the series, out of concerns that it would not be able to recoup production costs.

TNT’s The Closer  (also a Fox TV Studios show) remains the top show on cable, pulling in more than 7 million viewers each week, but beyond the long-running hit drama, few other shows on the network have been able to make a major ratings impact.

TNT premiered cop drama Dark Blue in July, and it has performed admirably, pulling in around 3 million viewers an episode. Solid, but not quite as many as fellow freshman HawthoRNe or sophomores Leverage and Raising The Bar, which have brought in just over 3 million people an episode each.

USA sister network Bravo has also had a strong summer, driven largely by its increasingly potent Real Housewives franchise. Installments in New York, New Jersey and Atlanta topped one another with every subsequent premiere. The Aug. 13 edition of The Real Housewives of Atlanta was the highest rated non-finale telecast for any Real Housewives franchise and marked the first time the network drew more than 3 million viewers to a program on a Thursday, one of the network’s newer nights of original programming.

Lifetime, which is betting heavily on the return of Project Runway and the launch of spinoff series Models of the Runway, has seen a modest summer. New comedy Drop Dead Diva premiered in July with solid ratings (2.8 million viewers), but hasn’t delivered the knockout punch the network was likely hoping would lead it into Runway. Returning hit Army Wives is also down from previous seasons.