Cable Claims Fall Turf

Plenty of media attention has been focused on the prominent place of science fiction and the supernatural in the broadcast networks’ new fall series. But less noticed is the fact that one cable channel is daring to muscle in on the action: Sci Fi has scheduled the finale of its popular original drama Stargate SG-1 to overlap with the Sept. 16 premiere of CBS’ alien-invasion drama Threshold.

“The days of us rolling over and moving out of the way of this stuff are gone,” says Sci Fi’s Executive VP/General Manager Dave Howe. “We have to put up some of our best content against these shows,” he says, in order to retain Sci Fi’s audience, if not beat the competition.

Though cable networks are generally still observing their traditional practice of stepping aside and ceding the fall season to broadcasters by wrapping up the original series they ran during summer, there are signs of a rebellion. Those series led cable to its most successful summer ever, and some cable networks are reluctant to surrender their momentum. They are competitively scheduling the last episodes of their originals into September, hoping to steal viewers from broadcast and get them to stick around for cable’s own fall staples: movies, original unscripted series and ratings-rich acquired series.

The summer’s cable ratings champ, TNT, will run new episodes of Wanted well into September, presumably drawing fans into the network’s acquired dramas: newcomers Alias, Cold Case, and Las Vegas and the second season of Without a Trace. But the network isn’t exactly picking a fight with broadcasters; original episodes of Wanted, which debuted July 31, will run through Sept. 18 but not resume until December, with five new episodes.

“They’re figuring, 'If we can get viewers in the summer, maybe we can keep them for the fall,’” says Steve Sternberg, executive VP/director of audience analysis for Magna Global. “There’s no law saying, 'Well, the summer’s over, they have to go back to broadcast.’”

Cable’s feisty approach to fall reflects long-term ratings growth during the season: Over the past decade, the top 10 cable networks have closed the fall ratings gap with broadcast by 50%. Broadcast’s fall ratings used to be 12 times larger than cable’s, Sternberg notes, and now they are only six times larger.

Cable networks hope the competitive scheduling will help keep audiences watching as they roll out a host of original reality shows and films throughout the fall.

The Discovery networks, leading the pack in quantity of original fall reality, will premiere unscripted shows throughout October and November. Discovery plans I Shouldn’t Be Alive for Oct. 14, and TLC has four unscripted shows that month, including Tuckerville, a reality show about Tanya Tucker, debuting on Oct. 8.

Elsewhere, VH1 premieres two reality shows in September. Breaking Bonaduce focuses on troubled former child star Danny Bonaduce, and My Fair Brady centers on America’s Next Top Model winner Adrianne Curry and The Brady Bunch star Christopher Knight, who fell in love on the network’s The Surreal Life.MTV will begin a reality series called The Reality Show, devoted to finding a cast for a new weekly show on the network.

At Lifetime, original movies including Ambulance Girl (Sept. 12), starring Kathy Bates, and Human Trafficking (Oct. 24), with Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland, will join a fall slate anchored by new acquired comedy Will & Grace.

It likely will be a long time before cable can afford to create enough original scripted series to mount a serious challenge to broadcast on its fall turf. But Magna Global’s Sternberg is intrigued by the possibilities.

“People want scripted entertainment. They want storytelling,” he says. “Broadcast puts that back in the fall, so a lot of viewers come to broadcast. But if you had TNT and USA and FX with a full schedule in prime of original scripted programs on every hour of the schedule, seven nights a week, they might do just as well as broadcast.”