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Cable: The Place to Be

We all know the upfronts are going to be very different this year. Gone—at least for now—are the halcyon days of network chiefs strutting with bravado on the big New York stages. But also gone are the days of cable network chiefs sitting in the audiences wishing it was them up there instead.

It turns out that running a major cable network right now is a heckuva lot easier—and probably more fun—than trying to solve the network mess from the big chair. Just ask yourself: Would you rather be piloting the speedboats that are USA, Showtime or FX right now, or fighting to move the clunky battleship that is network television?

The thought came up a couple of weeks ago when someone mentioned to me that Showtime's Robert Greenblatt might be in line for a broadcast network gig. My first reaction: Why the hell would he? And when I asked Greenblatt about it a few days later, his first reaction was: Why the hell would I?

“They still have that glamour and aura, but they just aren't better jobs anymore,” he said of network gigs. “The volume of those jobs and the parameters you work under are so hard.”

There is no doubt cable is as hot right now as network TV is cold, especially from a perception standpoint. Cable has the aura—one of financial upside and creative freedom. Cable shows are seemingly measured by buzz, while network shows are anchored to their slumping Nielsens.

“Why would I want those headaches?” said one network-turned-cable exec.

Networks have the burden of programming up to 22 hours of originals. A major cable power like FX has only nine shows total right now.

As USA Network programming chief Jeff Wachtel pointed out at a recent Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon, five million viewers on cable is a hit. The broadcast networks average more than that on Saturday nights, yet that is considered broadcast television's graveyard.

“Networks have multiple levels of executives that always end up changing their minds,” says FX boss John Landgraf. “That doesn't happen with us. It's a much more efficient process.”

And with successful cable networks each having their own niche, they aren't always fighting for the same development like the broadcasters. “When you have all four networks bidding for every project, they end up overpaying for failure,” Landgraf says.

But the halcyon days may not last forever. “It may be raining over there [at the networks], but it might be starting to drizzle a bit over here,” says one cable exec.

For instance, production costs certainly aren't falling and competition is up as the major cable networks with hits are putting more shows on the air. Plus, every time a newbie like Starz or AMC tastes a little success in originals, you suddenly have more competition for buzz and eyeballs.

The plethora of hits on the cable side keeps raising the creative bar. Because of that, and the relatively few shows a cable network will have in production, the spotlight on each project is growing more intense. “It's imperative that everything we do is at the highest level,” says Showtime's Greenblatt, a former Fox programming exec.

No one knows that better than HBO. After so many years as the standard-bearer of innovative and provocative television, it is struggling to get its groove back after recent rookie flops like John From Cincinnati.

“The piece we've missed is that [our shows have] not been as entertaining or emotionally gripping as our audience has come to expect,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo.

But for now, cable is having its day in the sun. So next week while the network chiefs are putting on their best faces while on stage at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, the cable chiefs sitting in the audience will, for once, be happy sitting right where they are.

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